IOWA CITY — It was definitely a surprise to see Marcus Coker get the start last week against Ohio State. The bigger surprise, though, was the results.
Coker, a 6-0, 230-pound true freshman, led the No. 24 Hawkeyes (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten) with 70 yards on just nine carries in Iowa’s loss to No. 8 Ohio State. With sophomore Adam Robinson benched for an academic indiscretion, Coker rushed for 43 yards in the first quarter.
Coker fueled Iowa’s lone touchdown drive of the first half with 30 rushing yards and an 11-yard reception. It was an impressive performance for a true freshman, but the fact that it was Ohio State gave Coker some style points.
Coker gets a shot at an encore this week when the Hawkeyes travel to Minnesota (2-9, 1-6) for their first appearance in TCF Bank Stadium. Robinson suffered a concussion in the fourth quarter against OSU and is out this week.
On Tuesday, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was told by Iowa’s medical staff that Robinson’s concussion should be cleared before the bowl game. It was Robinson’s second concussion in less than a month. He missed Iowa’s game at Indiana on Nov. 6 after suffering a concussion against Michigan State the week before.
Ferentz added that Iowa has most more gametime this season because of concussion (Robinson, running back Paki O’Meara and others, according to Ferentz) than in any other year. He contends head injuries are part of the game.
“Concussions are part of football,” Ferentz said. “I know they’re talked about more than they were before, but I don’t want to turn this into ‘Days of Our Lives,’ ‘General Hospital.’ . . . It’s just part of the game.”
This opens the door for Coker, who’ll get his third career start against the Gophers. In his first start at Indiana, Coker rushed for 129 yards. He scored his first career TD when rushed for 26 yards on one play and then busted in from the 1 on the next against the Buckeyes.
“He’s just letting the game come to him,” Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi said. “He’s doing a good job of learning the gameplan and understanding defenses a little bit better. He’s still very young and that’s a tough thing to do, but each week he’s improved and you can see it on the field.”
The Buckeyes went into the Iowa game allowing just 2.9 yards a carry. Coker averaged 7.8 yards, the most this season against the Buckeyes for any running back with five or more carries. Wisconsin’s John Clay is the only back to break 100 yards (104) against OSU.
Robinson played the second and most of the third quarters against OSU, but was stymied, finishing with 27 yards on nine carries. Iowa veered slightly away from the run in the second half — rushing 11 times compared to 14 in the first — except for Coker’s two-carry drive that was set up by cornerback Shaun Prater’s interception.
Robinson carried the load until Coker got the call with the game tied, 10-10. Ferentz was asked if Coker’s first quarter made headway for coaches to think about using him in the second and third.
The answer is trust account.
“I think every player, they’re building credit or spending on a credit card, going into the red, with everything they do, performance-wise, practice and games,” Ferentz said. “I think with every exposure we’ve had with Marcus, which has been fairly limited, has been impressive.
“The defense we played the other night was very tenacious, fast-closing and hard-hitting. To see him perform in that environment, I thought that was awfully impressive.
“He’s building and gaining our confidence. I assume he’s becoming more confident individually, too. He should feel good about what he did.”
Coker suffered a broken collarbone late in the first week of fall camp and missed nearly four weeks. Ferentz considered that a huge set back, calling it more like “10 weeks” at some point this season.
Ferentz was asked what he would’ve thought if someone told him Iowa’s starting and maybe only running back in November was Coker.
“I don’t mind telling you I had an ominous feeling when Marcus fractured his collarbone,” Ferentz said. “Somehow, some way, I thought that was going to impact us a little bit and it did. I don’t know if all coaches, but I always tend to think the worst. I’ve got that blackcloud in my head on certain things.”
Coker was the second Iowa running back to fall this season. Sophomore Brandon Wegher walked away from the team two or three days before Coker’s injury. Then, Jewel Hampton suffered a torn ACL. Then, Robinson’s concussions.
Ferentz said Hampton’s rehab from surgery is on schedule. He also took a question about Wegher, who’s still in Iowa City and attending classes.
“If he joins our team in January, I don’t know,” Ferentz said. “To do so, you have to be academically eligible and all those things. I’m really not thinking about that right now. I’m worried about making sure Marcus is ready to go Saturday.”
Coker showed last week he’s ready to go.