IOWA CITY — Anthony Hitchens showed up on Tuesday and he knew it would come up.
Iowa’s junior weakside linebacker sat for much of the second half in last week’s 27-24 last-second loss to Purdue. Hitchens has had stuggles in pass drops and, to a lesser degree in run fits, this season. He was pulled briefly during the Hawkeyes’ loss to Central Michigan in September.
At some point, Hitchens’ performance against the Boilermakers moved either defensive coordinator Phil Parker or linebackers coach LeVar Woods to take him out of the game. Redshirt freshman Travis Perry went in at outside linebacker and junior Christian Kirksey shifted to Hitchens’ spot.
Hitchens, who’s No. 4 in the nation with 11.4 tackles a game, didn’t get into specifics during Tuesday’s media session, but he was honest and didn’t duck the question.
“It was a coach decision, I’m not going to go in-depth into everything, but it was a coach decision,” said Hitchens, who leads the Hawkeyes with 114 tackles. “I always have to be motivated every week. We have a lot of good linebackers who can play all three positions. I have to focus more this week than I did last week and have a better game.”
The Hawkeyes (4-6, 2-4 Big Ten) are in the midst of a four-game losing streak going into Saturday’s game at Michigan (7-3, 5-1), which still is in play for the Legends Division title and a berth in the Big Ten title game. The depth chart has seen some shifts.
Three weeks ago against Indiana, sophomore strong safety Nico Law started senior Tommy Donatell and has started there since. Iowa waded through two candidates at left guard before junior Conor Boffeli got the start last week against Purdue.
“I thought he did a good job,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s his first really significant playing time, first start, and then first significant playing time. I thought there were a lot of positives there. There were some plays that weren’t so good, as and told him, look at any of our players, any one of them the last 14 years in their first game that didn’t have some bad plays.
“. . . He’s a fourth‑year guy who to me I hope he walked away with some confidence out of that performance. I thought he did a lot of good things.”
This was a nice payoff for Boffeli, who until Saturday was a career backup at center.
“It was something I’ve wanted to do and I was anxious,” said Boffeli, a 6-5, 290-pound junior from West Des Moines. “Just to finally have a game under my belt is pretty nice.”
The dominoes tumbled for Iowa’s O-line in the first quarter of the Penn State defeat on Oct. 20. Left tackle Brandon Scherff (broken fibula, dislocated ankle) and guard Andrew Donnal (ACL) were lost for the season. Junior Nolan MacMillan and redshirt freshman Jordan Walsh got the first shots to replace Donnal. Senior Matt Tobin shifted from guard to left tackle.
When running back Mark Weisman burst on the scene with 113 yards and three TDs against Northern Iowa on Sept. 15, Iowa had found money. Weisman was a walk-on who won fullback in camp. Iowa ran into injury problems at running back and moved Weisman over. He still leads the Hawkeyes with 661 yards and eight TDs.
He’s had just 14 carries the last four weeks because of ankle and groin injuries. It’s punched a gaping hole in Iowa’s offense.
Before those three left the lineup, Iowa averaged 4.48 rushing yards a carry and 154.6 yards a game. Since their departure, Iowa has averaged 2.51 ypc and 78.0 a game.
“How it affects us is hard to say, but obviously negatively,” center James Ferentz said. “We lost three really good players there and three really good leaders.”
Defensively, there’s no clear impact point like two O-linemen being knocked out for the season two plays apart, but the numbers the last four weeks (475.0 yards a game and 6.18 a play) have bulged compared to the first six (317.16 yard a game and 4.87). Health has eroded. Linebacker James Morris finished last week’s game injured and on the bench. End Joe Gaglione missed the game with an illness.
Big plays have been part of the problem. Iowa has allowed 35 plays of 10 or more yards the last two games. That’s No. 107 in the country for the month of November. In the last four games, Iowa has allowed 22 plays of 20-plus yards while just nine of its own.
“Obviously, the big plays,” cornerback Micah Hyde said. “We’ve given up too many big plays the last couple of games. That’s tackling.”
That’s a lot of things and that’s also why the depth chart has shifted going into the final two games.