By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Somewhat lost in the emotion and feel-good stories from Senior Day is that the Iowa running game continues to sputter.
Iowa only rushed for 79 yards during Saturday’s 19-10 victory over Illinois in the home finale at Kinnick Stadium, and 22 of the yards came from quarterback Nate Stanley.
That’s right Nate Stanley, who usually only runs as a last resort.
“We may even move him to running back this week,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said jokingly after Saturday’s victory. “I don't know; he's our leading per-carry back today. But I can't say enough about him.”
It was easy for Ferentz to joke on Saturday because it came after a victory.
But if Iowa had rushed for just 79 yards in a loss to Illinois, the mood, and the narrative, would have been much different.
Stanley’s 22 yards on the ground were the second most by a Hawkeye, behind only Tyler Goodson’s 38 rushing yards.
However, it took Goodson 21 carries to gain those yards, and he had multiple carries in which he lost yards.
Iowa entered the Illinois game ranked 10th in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging just 137 yards per contest.
That’s mediocre under any circumstance, but especially for a program that prides itself on having a power running game that stays ahead of the chains.
If there is one thing that has stopped Iowa from being elite in most seasons under Kirk Ferentz, it has been the lack of a consistent running game.
That has been especially true this season, considering Iowa was outgained on the ground in its three losses to Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin by a whopping margin of 597 to 158 combined.
Iowa had just one rushing yard in the 10-3 loss at Michigan, largely due to giving up eight sacks, but the running game still was a non-factor.
Penn State held Iowa to 70 rushing yards during a 17-12 victory at Kinnick Stadium, while Wisconsin only allowed 87 on the ground during a 24-22 victory over Iowa at home.
It just strange that a team with arguably the best set of offensive tackles in the Big Ten in juniors Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs would struggle so much on the ground.
Goodson has shown that all he needs is just a little blocking to do big things.
There was just nowhere for Goodson to run against an Illinois defense that entered Saturday’s game ranked 13th in the conference in rushing defense, allowing 196.2 yards per game.
And that’s a concern.
Up next on Black Friday is a Nebraska defense that was ranked 12th in the conference in rushing defense heading into this past weekend’s games, allowing 188.3 yards per game.
You’d like to think that Iowa could have its way on the ground against Nebraska, but based on what happened against Illinois, it’s hard to be overly optimistic.
There are theories for why the Iowa running game so often sputters, one of the more popular being that Iowa’s zone blocking schemes are outdated and easy for quality opponents to counter.
Maybe so, but if that truly is the case, wouldn’t somebody with Kirk Ferentz’s experience and expertise know as much as the media and those on social media?
There has to be more to it than just blocking schemes.
Goodson’s emergence as a true freshman has sort of helped to overshadow the rushing woes because he is a dynamic performer and a fan favorite.
But even the best running backs need blocking and that was severely lacking against Illinois.
Juniors Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young entered the season as the top two running backs on the depth chart, and it stayed that way until Goodson was named the starter for the Minnesota game in week 10.
Sargent and Young have played sparingly in the last two games, while Goodson has 34 carries in the last two games.
It’s no secret that the interior of the Iowa offensive line has been vulnerable, especially at the two guard positions, where injuries have also been a factor.
And it’s easy to forget that Tyler Linderbaum was playing defensive tackle at this time last year. His move to center, where he now starts as a redshirt freshman, didn’t happen until shortly after the 2018 regular season had ended.
The fact that Stanley had 308 passing yards against Illinois would be impressive under any circumstance, but he did it with little help from the running game.
Illinois loaded the box to stop the running game, but that also made it vulnerable against the pass and Stanley exploited that matchup.
Opponents often load the box against Iowa, and more times than not, the running game struggles as a result.
The weird thing about this season is that Iowa’s passing game has mostly been productive throughout, and yet, opposing defenses still seem to make stopping the running game top priority.
Maybe that would change with more games like this past Saturday when Iowa won with an explosive passing attack and a dominant defense.
“If they want to load the box, we can just sling it outside,” said junior receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who had a game-high 121 receiving yards against Illinois.
It isn’t my intention to rain on the Senior Day parade, or to see the glass half empty after an emotional win, but Iowa’s inability to sustain a rushing attack is baffling.
It has been an ongoing problem under Kirk Ferentz, and it just doesn't make sense.