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PISCATAWAY, N.J. — The fact the Iowa football team found some success on the ground against Rutgers likely wouldn’t have been a surprise to someone a few months ago.
But who would be leading that charge likely would’ve caught a few people off guard a few months ago.
Gavin Williams started the season as the Hawkeyes’ clear No. 1 running back after averaging 4.7 yards per carry in 2021 as the No. 2 back behind Tyler Goodson.
But in the first game with Iowa’s top three running backs — Gavin Williams, Leshon Williams and Kaleb Johnson — all fully available, Leshon Williams and Johnson were the ones with starring roles.
Leshon Williams had a team-best 64 rushing yards while averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Johnson had 58 yards and averaged 3.9 yards per carry.
Gavin Williams, meanwhile, only had 17 rushing yards on seven carries — a 2.4 yard-per-carry clip. Four of his seven carries resulted in either no gain or a loss of yards.
What happened against Rutgers has been a microcosm of what the first four games of 2022 have looked like.
Gavin Williams has 84 yards and 3.4 yards per carry. Leshon Williams has 170 yards and 3.5 yards per carry. Johnson has 174 yards and 6.0 yards per carry.
Of course, those statistics are far from perfect. Gavin Williams didn’t play at all against South Dakota State and played sparingly against Iowa State. Leshon Williams missed the Nevada game. The bulk of Kaleb Johnson’s touches have come in the last two games.
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz is not going to “read too much into it.”
“We talk about Gavin and Leshon like they’re seniors, and they’re not,” Ferentz said. “They’re young players.”
Iowa also still has many question marks at other positions on its offense.
“Especially on our offensive side, we’re trying to learn about the team with each and every rep,” Ferentz said.
That’s been especially the case on the offensive line. Four of the five first-team offensive linemen have made their first career starts at their respective positions in 2022, with Mason Richman being the exception at left tackle.
Some of Gavin Williams’ carries came with little-to-no space created by the offensive line.
Three Rutgers players were at or ahead of the line of scrimmage waiting for Gavin Williams on his first carry, yet he managed to turn it into a zero-yard play.
On his 6-yard loss in the second quarter, a defender blew past offensive tackle Connor Colby to greet Williams essentially as soon as he took the handoff.
The offensive line certainly made some strides against Rutgers, which was helpful as the Hawkeyes matched their season-best with 129 rushing yards.
But some of Gavin Williams’ no-win scenarios against Rutgers — a team with previous 2022 wins came against two FBS teams that didn’t go to a bowl last year and an FCS team that hasn’t won a game since 2019 — is a reminder there’s more work to be done on the offensive line.
Quarterback Spencer Petras’ three sacks Saturday was another reminder.
Continued improvement will be especially necessary as a challenging October approaches. Two of Iowa’s next three opponents are in the top four of the latest Associated Press poll.
Leshon Williams and Johnson’s agility has made up for some of the shortcomings on a young offensive line, but it likely won’t be a reliable blanket solution against No. 3 Ohio State or No. 4 Michigan.
Nagging injuries continue to nag
Wide receiver Keagan Johnson again was not available in Iowa’s 27-10 win Saturday. He has played in only one of four games, and that was for 15 snaps.
His nagging injury involves “soft tissue,” Ferentz said.
“There’s just no way to predict how it’s going to go,” Ferentz said.
Linebacker Jestin Jacobs made his return after suffering an injury in Week 1, but he had to exit the game. It’s unclear whether he suffered a new injury or reaggrevated his existing injury.
“I don’t think it’s good,” Ferentz said, although he’ll know more about Jacobs’ prognosis by his Tuesday news conference.