IOWA CITY — Mark Weisman didn’t seem to have the weight of the Iowa football world on his right ankle Tuesday afternoon.
He moved pretty well for a running back with a freshly sprained ankle and a walking boot. The big question is can that ankle make it through what Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz expects to be a ferocious game Saturday night when the Hawkeyes (4-2, 2-0 Big Ten) play host to Penn State (4-2, 2-0)?
That remains to be seen. The certainties are Weisman, pretty much Iowa’s offense since he emerged as the No. 1 running back Sept. 15, has a sprained ankle, had an MRI that didn’t raise too many red flags and did some light workouts Tuesday.
Still, Ferentz is preparing for the possibility that 36 percent of his team’s scoring (Weisman has eight of Iowa’s 13 TDs), 68 percent of the rushing offense (631 of Iowa’s 928 yards) and 56 percent of Iowa’s total offense (631 or 1,134 yards).
“I think realistically, you’re talking about a guy trying to be a running back, not a guy doing something otherwise,” Ferentz said. “I think he has a lot of progress to make to be able to play. We’ll just take the mental approach that he’s not going to be here. If he does join us, great.”
What type of sprain, that’s uncertain. The difference between an ankle sprain and a high-ankle sprain could be as much as three weeks. Medically, Ferentz said, Weisman is cleared, but still, that doesn’t mean he can play running back at the level he’s played it so far this season.
“I’ve heard high, low, in-between,” Ferentz said. “All I know, he’s out of the boot and they’re going to let him play a little bit — jogging around, stance and starts, things like that. That’s opposed to trying to run against an angry group . . . this is the varsity that we’re playing this week.”
Sophomore Damon Bullock, Iowa’s No. 2 rusher with 280 yards, is out. After sitting three weeks because of a concussion suffered Sept. 15 against Northern Iowa, he suffered a recurrence in practice last week and has been ruled out for the Nittany Lions, who are No. 6 in the Big Ten in rush defense (126.8 yards a game).
So, true freshman Greg Garmon and sophomore Jordan Canzeri are up, if Weisman is unable to make it work.
Garmon carried four times for 6 yards in the overtimes of Iowa’s victory at Michigan State last week. Garmon has 35 yards on 14 carries this season.
“He’s a playmaker,” wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said. “The biggest thing we have to do as older guys is encourage him, make sure he’s doing everything right. He’s going to step up and make plays if we need him to.”
From the sounds of it, Garmon didn’t exactly have the green light to let it rip at Michigan State, especially going into an overtime situation, on the road, as a true freshman against a rugged defense.
“How honest do you want me to be?” Ferentz asked. “He ran out of bounds about eight times and that was OK as long as the ball didn’t go on the ground.”
Canzeri would be playing his first game since suffering a torn ACL during spring practice in late March. The 5-9, 183-pounder has played in seven games, including a start against Oklahoma in last year’s Insight Bowl. He gained 80 yards on 22 touches and scored a TD.
He’ll be seven months out from an ACL repair, right on time for a citizen who walks the streets but quick for a major-college running back. Perhaps the most telling clue to Canzeri’s readiness is the fact that he traveled and was in uniform at Michigan State. The Big Ten limits travel squads to 70 players.
“We have a very limited pool of guys right now,” Ferentz said, “so, I’d say it’s realistic to think that he’s thick into it. . . . It’s amusing in some ways that we think the cavalry is coming, because he’s played in one game, but at least he’s been tackled at the Division I level. That’s a positive.
“And he’s looked good in practice, so given our circumstances, I think it’s realistic to think he’ll play.”
Weisman’s health and the tenuous nature of his backup, seemingly a constant for Iowa, puts pressure on Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg and the passing game to find its way.
The Hawkeyes haven’t been a threat through the air. Vandenberg averages 5.8 yards an attempt, which measures the overall effectiveness of an offense. What an offense can expect when it throws the ball is measured with this number, which, you can argue, measures play design and play making.
“We’re not going to give up on the run, but we’re going to have to try to compensate a little bit and spread it around and do what we can,” Ferentz said, “but it’s not going to be easy.”