Hawkeyes search for the hot hand at running back
Injuries, tough defense limiting Iowa's RB-by-committee
IOWA CITY -- If the running game is the power source for Iowa's success, then the running backs are the fuel, the atoms, the coal or whatever energy element you want to use.
Going into Saturday's game at Purdue (1-7, 0-4 Big Ten), the Hawkeyes (5-4, 2-3) find themselves in a bit of an energy crisis.
Junior Mark Weisman, who remains Iowa's leading rusher with 747 yards, sprained an elbow and missed much of the second half in last week's loss to Wisconsin. Junior Damon Bullock, who has 98 carries, has been limited to 6 yards in two of the last four games. True freshman LeShun Daniels has seen a limited number of carries (11) with limited results (36 yards) the last three weeks.
After three weeks without a carry, sophomore Jordan Canzeri burst for a 43-yard gain (the longest rush for an Iowa running back this season) and finished with 58 yards (the most for an Iowa back in the last four games).
There's some yin and yang to why Iowa is stuck here. Offensive linemen acknowledged this week that they haven't held up their end, at least to their expectations. If you added where the defenses Iowa has faced in three of the last four weeks rank nationally against the run, you'd have the number 10. That makes it hard for running backs. So do injuries and how and when they're used.
The who, what, when and where of running back was a persistent topic with the Hawkeyes this week.
"I think we've got a pretty good handle on who's who and what's what on our team," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said when asked about the weekly search for the most effective running back against a given defense. "You never know how it's going to be going on a certain day, either. You just never know. We'll just try to figure that out."
Before a foot injury and a raise in the ante of the defenses Iowa has faced, running back was easy for the Hawkeyes. It went hand off to Weisman and watch him go for 5 or 6 yards. Through the first five games, Weisman averaged 23.8 carries a game. In the last four, since a foot injury knocked him out of the Michigan State game, it's been 9.7 carries a game.
"Maybe safeties are coming down a little harder and filling a little harder than they typically do when we watch them against other teams," Weisman said. "That's expected against the way we had been running the ball. That's something that's going to happen. You have to break those tackles."
The inescapable truth here is that Iowa hasn't measured up well against the best teams in the conference. In the last four weeks, Iowa has faced the No. 4 (Ohio State), No. 19 (Michigan State) and No. 22 (Wisconsin) teams in the country. With good teams usually come solid run defenses. Each of these three is in the top five in the nation in rush defense: MSU is No. 1 (43.4 yards a game), Ohio State is fourth (88.2) and Wisconsin fifth (90.3).
"I was concerned Saturday [against Wisconsin] because we didn't have the kind of productivity you want to have, but they had a lot to do with that," Ferentz said. "They're a good football team. Every week is a different challenge. I think we're capable of doing better, and I think we probably could have done a little bit better last week, and that would have helped the cause certainly, but we didn't get it done."
It's been a "running back by committee" approach. Weisman's health has perhaps been the biggest determining factor in who does what. Ferentz said he expects the 6-0, 236-pounder to play this weekend.
In "committee" mode, Iowa has searched for the hottest, healthiest and most consistent back. Against Wisconsin, that started with Weisman, went to Bullock, then Daniels and then finally Canzeri.
"It's a hot-hand thing, we're looking for guys who can go out there and make a play," Weisman said. "We haven't had that as much. Jordan went out there and made a play and played really well."
Canzeri hadn't had a carry in three games and then he suddenly was the guy late in the third quarter. It did spark Iowa's offense, leading it to a field goal. Canzeri, who's had 29 carries this season, said it wasn't a statement for more carries.
"It's nothing like that," he said. "I'm ready, I'm on sideline. If my name gets called, I'm ready to go. Anything I can do to help the team, I'm there. LeShun has been doing a great job. It didn't hurt me at all [Daniels getting carries before him], I wasn't doubting myself. We've all been working hard, we all can get the job done."