IOWA CITY — Kirk Ferentz laid out a road map for the second half of the season. Yes, one of the offramps was the ubiquitous term “execution,” but Ferentz’s other points of interest have definable success or mediocrity or failure.
You already have a pretty good idea where this is going. Iowa (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) has had some obvious problems in the first half. It’s had some strengths, but those didn’t make Ferentz’s list, which was all about what the Hawkeyes need to do.
Of course, the Iowa head coach wants the Hawkeyes to run the ball better. The 3.67 yards per carry started earning eye rolls from players maybe two weeks ago. No one is satisfied and everyone wants that number in a better place.
Last week, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz talked about the importance of efficient plays, specifically first down. The concept of efficiency might be new for folks outside of the Hansen Performance Complex. The players have been hearing about it for a while now.
And when they hear it, they feel it.
“You do feel disappointed, because that is on the offensive line,” center James Daniels said. “It’s on the running backs, fullbacks and tight ends, too, but running the ball mainly relies on the offensive line. That makes us realize that we have to start practicing better and then we’ll start playing better.”
You could probably make the argument that the running game, or lack thereof, has put Iowa in a precarious position in the Big Ten West. This week, Iowa travels to Northwestern (3-3, 1-2), which might rival the Hawkeyes in Big Ten degree of difficulty, comparing the Hawkeyes’ two Big Ten losses (Penn State and at Michigan State) to the Wildcats’ (at Wisconsin and Penn State).
“From now on, every game for us is a must-win,” running back Akrum Wadley said. “I feel like we kind of have our backs against the wall. We have a decent record, but that’s not what we’re settling for. I feel like every game is going to be like an important game. We need this game.”
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The Hawkeyes have averaged 3.44 yards per carry (112 carries) on first down this season. That’s 13th in the Big Ten. It’s also Iowa’s worst first-down number since 2012. Last season, Iowa averaged 5.51 yards on 245 first down carries.
Boil this number down and it’s not all running the ball, it’s simply staying ahead of the chains and keeping the offense’s task manageable. Again, that word is “efficiency.” The players have heard it and are still hearing it.
“It has been and it will continue to be,” quarterback Nate Stanley said on the idea of efficiency being drilled into the offense’s thoughts. “Obviously, our run efficiency is a little bit low. We want to continue building that, so we can run or pass with efficiency on first down. Second-and-short is where we’re trying to get.”
A few players who could move the running game forward are “maybe” or “probably not” injury-wise this week.
Senior running back James Butler averaged 12 carries in Iowa's first three games before he suffered an elbow injury Sept. 16 against North Texas. Butler practiced Tuesday for the first time since the injury. He won’t play this week.
“He’s missed significant time, football time, and really couldn’t run full-speed with that elbow issue, and then the other trick is just getting used (to the) brace, so he’s got a ways to go yet, but it was just good to get him back on the field and back with our football team,” Ferentz said.
Ferentz gave a vague answer to a question on senior offensive lineman Boone Myers’ health. Myers has battled an ankle issue this year. He didn’t play against Illinois.
Ball security was No. 2 on Ferentz’s list. The good news is Iowa is back to even in turnover margin with four takeaways two weeks ago against Illinois. The bad news is Iowa now has nine fumbles. That’s tied for 126th in the nation with just Oregon State (12) and San Jose State (14) having more.
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True freshman running back Ivory Kelly-Martin fumbled against Illinois and went nearly three full quarters before his next touch.
“I’ve said several times, we’ve probably done more ball security work and maybe we are screwing this up,” Ferentz said. “Maybe I’m starting to wonder about it. But it’s just you keep emphasizing things, and at some point you gain traction on it or you don’t, and if you don’t, you’re going to have a problem.”
Defensively, the focus remains on keeping a lid on explosive plays. The Hawkeyes have just treaded water on this, sitting sixth in the Big Ten with 23 20-plus yard plays allowed.
The injury focus on the defensive side is cornerback Manny Rugamba (ankle/foot). He was in for one play against Illinois. Ferentz filed the Rugamba update along with Myers. He’s back practicing and working toward full health.
One thing Iowa’s defense does have going for it is linebacker Josey Jewell is playing. He missed a couple of series after a shoulder injury against the Fighting Illini. He said Tuesday that he’s good to go.
“It’s good, everything is good,” Jewell said. “Playing on Saturday is going to be awesome.”
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