IOWA CITY — It probably was no accident that Tristan Wirfs’ first start as an Iowa offensive tackle came at home against Illinois and not last week at Michigan State.
You saw Michigan State on Saturday night against Michigan.
It’s better your first fire is a barrel in a parking lot than Michigan State’s defense.
And it probably was no accident that the first start of Wirfs’ career was alongside right guard Sean Welsh, a senior leader-type who knows the job through and through.
As it turned out, Wirfs knew what he was doing.
“I think he did a good job during the week preparing and I think he had his ducks in a row,” Welsh said. “I told him at any point don’t be too proud or bashful or anything to ask, even if we’re in the middle of the cadence, and he didn’t do that once.
“I think it’s a good sign that he’s taking care of business.”
Even after 19 years as Iowa’s head coach, Kirk Ferentz isn’t immune to “firsts.” Wirfs became the first true freshman to start at offensive tackle in the Ferentz era.
Wirfs, a 6-5, 315-pounder from Mount Vernon, is the fourth true freshman to start on the offensive line under Ferentz. In 2015, center James Daniels started two games at left guard. Bryan Bulaga started five games at left guard in 2007, and Mike Jones started seven games at left guard in 2003.
Here’s Ferentz’s quick-and-dirty breakdown of Wirfs in Saturday afternoon’s postgame:
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“Two things. He actually got beat on that last touchdown that we threw, (it was) late enough where we got the ball out,” Ferentz said. “There was one play in the first half where the guy came up underneath on him. But outside of that, nothing that was glaring. We’ll have plenty of coach off tomorrow, but again, that’s another good story there.”
Perhaps the biggest benefit of Wirfs’ safe landing in the lineup for Iowa was being able to move Welsh back to right guard, where he earned third-team all-Big Ten honors last season.
“If he can play well out there, that’s good for us, obviously, and then the other thing, it allows Sean to get back to where he’s a little bit more comfortable,” Ferentz said. “We’re kind of just fudging things a little bit with Sean out there. We’re taking a guy who’s a really good football player and maybe minimizing some of his effectiveness.”
Something probably had to give after Michigan State, when the Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) were held to 19 yards on 25 carries, their fewest yards in a game since minus-9 against Ohio State in 2005.
“We just felt like coming out of last weekend this was the best thing for us,” Ferentz said. “It gives us the best chance, and fortunately those guys practiced well together this week.”
Welsh said he felt more comfortable back at guard.
“I like playing guard,” Welsh said. “I told the coaches I’ll play wherever they want, but I think I’m more of a guard body. There’s something to be said for guys who are 6-5. It’s good to be back inside.”
Against Illinois, the Hawkeyes had Wirfs at right tackle and redshirt freshman Alaric Jackson at left tackle. That’s 6-5, 315 and 6-7, 317.
(One quick aside: While leaving the postgame interview area Saturday, Jackson ran into junior defensive end Parker Hesse. The two have battled in camp and practice the last two years. They gave each other quick smiles and congrats. That’s connectivity we know is there, but don’t see all that often.)
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“We recruited Tristan as a tackle-type guy,” Ferentz said. “We think that’s his best place. Same thing with AJ (Jackson) on the other side. If those guys can do what they can do and do it well — and AJ just keeps improving every week — I think it just makes us a little bit stronger inside, a little bit more cohesive. I thought in the second half we started looking a little bit more like we want to look as an offense, so a big part of that is what’s going on up front.”
Another payoff that could help down the line was senior O-lineman Boone Myers getting the week off. The ankle injury he’s dealt with since camp has hampered his performance. Now, he has two weeks to rest and try to get right. Iowa is on bye this week and travels to Northwestern (2-3, 0-2) on Oct. 21.
A week after averaging .76 yards per carry, the Hawkeyes averaged 5.03 yards on 38 carries and went for 191 yards. Running back Akrum Wadley rushed 23 times for 115 yards and scored two TDs.
OK, yes, that was Illinois, a team that’s started 11 true freshmen this season, most in the nation. The Fighting Illini also have the worst rush defense in the Big Ten.
How will this iteration of Iowa’s O-line hold up against No. 8 Ohio State (Nov. 4 at Kinnick) and No. 6 Wisconsin (Nov. 11 at Camp Randall Stadium)? According to the NCAA, Iowa’s remaining schedule ranks as the 14th toughest in the country.
There are six remaining chapters in the 2017. You’ll have to tune in to see how this goes for Iowa.
“Every game is a little different story,” Ferentz said. “The biggest thing we have to do is just keep working forward, and every guy can improve, and that’s been the mantra all the way through. At least this week I think we took a positive step.”
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