IOWA CITY — For that one week in Minneapolis, Iowa was once again the “bullies of the Big Ten.”
That’s what Michigan linebacker Carl Diggs called Iowa going into the 2003 matchup. Coming out of Iowa’s Sept. 28 game at Minnesota, it looked as though the Hawkeyes could again put that on a T-shirt.
Iowa (5-4, 2-3 Big Ten) busted up the Gophers, who thought they were ready to trade punches with Iowa on the line of scrimmage. Iowa rushed for 246 yards on 45 carries (a season-high 5.47 yards a carry). Running back Mark Weisman rushed for 147 yards on 24 carries, and the Hawkeyes seemed locked into position as the team that would deliver the blow over the next seven Big Ten games.
Going into Saturday’s game at Purdue (1-7, 0-4), Iowa hasn’t come anywhere near following that up. The Hawkeyes’ offensive linemen know they haven’t imprinted a game like they did against Minnesota. And, yes, it is wearing on them.
“Definitely we have not done what we’ve needed to do up front,” tackle Brett Van Sloten said. “That’s something that was addressed after the game. We have to get back to dominating games. We haven’t done that and that falls on our shoulders, that’s not the play call, that’s not the running backs fault, that’s our fault.”
Coach Kirk Ferentz noted Tuesday that the first half of the Ohio State game was a pretty good roll for the Iowa rush offense. And it was. The Hawkeyes rushed for 101 yards on 20 carries. That dissipated to 29 yards on six carries in the second half of a 34-24 loss.
It’s been rinse and repeat. Iowa followed up Minnesota with 23 rushing yards against a fearsome Michigan State defense and then 130 yards, 136 yards and 110 last week against Wisconsin.
After talking up the half against Ohio State, Ferentz acknowledged the trend.
“We play better if we can run it, that’s for sure,” he said. “I’m not overly thrilled with what we’re doing right now. We need to amp that up a little bit.”
Since 2007, Iowa is 24-5 when it has rushed 40 or more times in a game. This year, that stat is 5-1 with the lone defeat coming in the opener, when Northern Illinois survived the Hawkeyes rushing 43 times for 202 yards. Since Minnesota, the Hawkeyes have averaged 29 carries and 99.75 yards a game.
Iowa is 2-1 away from Kinnick Stadium with victories over Iowa State and Minnesota and a respectable performance at Ohio State. In those three games, Iowa has rushed the ball 61.1 percent of the time. For the season, that number is 55.7 and in the last four games, in which Iowa has a 1-3 record against three ranked teams, it’s 44.1 percent (116 rushes in 263 plays).
So, yes, the numbers definitely say Iowa is better when it can run the ball.
“That’s our job, to get the run game going and protection,” tackle Brandon Scherff said. “We have to play the full 60 minutes. We tend to play half the game. The second half, we haven’t been playing like the first half. The first half, we don’t play like we do in the second. We have to play the full 60 minutes.”
And the thing is, they feel as though it’s nothing big or glaring. It’s just enough small mistakes to add up to an offense that has traditionally been built on balance and a solid O-line push with no go-to element.
“It’s not us needing to play better or more cohesively, I think we’re playing fine together,” center Austin Blythe said. “It’s the little details that you need to fix. Things that you don’t know you’re doing wrong at the time, but when you go back and watch tape, you’re like, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize I was doing that.’”
Iowa has a chance to spackle over some of the problems. Purdue’s rush defense is No. 108 in the country with 211.7 yards a game. In scoring defense, the Boilermakers are No. 113 allowing 37.1 points a game.
Ferentz declared quarterback Jake Rudock (sprained knee) and running back Mark Weisman (sprained elbow) healthy and ready to practice Tuesday. Both players said in interviews that they expect to play.
This sets up to be a “bullies of the Big Ten” week.
“Talk is cheap,” Van Sloten said. “What they [coaches] have said to us is we need to eliminate the negative-yardage plays. We were in the red zone a couple of times [against Wisconsin last week] and shot ourselves in the foot. We can’t do that.
“It also comes down to doing our own individual job. Sometimes, people get carried away worrying about what other people are going to do. We need to do our own job. Talk is cheap. We have to have the right mindset.”