EVANSTON, Ill. — Two years ago at Northwestern’s Ryan Field, Iowa running back Akrum Wadley could have glided back from Chicagoland to Iowa City on the wind under his sails.
He rushed for 204 yards and four touchdowns in a breakthrough performance. He would have stayed all day and night to talk to reporters afterward if he hadn’t had a team bus to catch.
Ah, 2015. That’s when the Hawkeyes dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage here. That’s when the Hawkeyes had an offensive line that was a vintage Iowa line, when it had receivers who got open and caught the ball, when it had a quarterback in C.J. Beathard who was 18 months from becoming an NFL draftee and 24 months from becoming an NFL starter.
The Hawkeyes made their return to Evanston Saturday, and gave a performance nothing like their 40-10 triumph here in 2015. Their 17-10 overtime loss Saturday was a slog, which would be a generous way to describe their running game.
Outside of a 61-yard bomb from Nate Stanley to Matt VandeBerg on Iowa’s lone touchdown drive, its passing game was ordinary at best. And Stanley, though he has potential o’plenty, simply isn’t where Beathard was two years ago or last year, as you would expect.
Do those sound like the ingredients of a mediocre offense? Of course they do.
Wadley, who came back for his senior season hoping for a big finish, had a whole lot of nothing to say in the several minutes I heard him use short sentences to tersely answer postgame questions that weren’t provocative.
“Bounce back, finish strong.”
“Keep moving forward.”
“Got to watch tape and see what went wrong.”
To several questions, he simply said “No comment.” Questions like why the team didn’t run the ball with the same results in the second half as it did in the first. Like if he is more comfortable running in space than between the tackles. Like what his emotions are right now.
Hey, what could he say that wasn’t obvious? The Hawkeyes rushed 33 times for 89 yards, 2.7 yards per carry. It was 16 rushes for 33 yards after halftime. Bullies? Not today, not this season, not this offense.
The overtime didn’t take long. Running back Justin Jackson of the Wildcats went 23 yards to the NU 1 on a catch-and-run on 3rd-and-9 to set up a touchdown. When Iowa had 4th-and-3, tight end Noah Fant dropped what would have been a first-down catch.
“It was a lot of plays this game,” Stanley said, “not just that one.”
It was a lot of nothing, actually. You hold a team to 10 points through four quarters on the road, you have to win every single time no matter the opponent, the weather, the pregame meal, or the Dow Jones average.
Iowa wasted a winning defensive effort at Michigan State three weeks earlier, and did so again here. Not that anyone’s calling this season a squandered opportunity, because this feels like a team that should be 4-3. And so it is.
Things felt a lot better after the 21-19, last-second loss to Penn State last month. But Iowa’s offense in the second half of that game was a couple of Wadley lightning bolts and little else but drizzle.
Wadley’s skills aren’t any less than they were a year ago when he rushed for 1,081 yards and 6.6 yards a carry. But he’s only getting 4.0 yards per rush this season. Yet again Saturday, we saw him absolutely stymied on first-down carries with defenses selling out for the run
Wadley had the same number of carries Saturday (26) as he did here two years ago. He got 90 yards this time, not 204.
He ran 10 times on first down. Those rushes produced a total of 13 measly yards. Try having your personal daylight cut down by that much without getting grumpy.
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Two years ago, Wadley could have levitated back to Iowa. This time, he and his team were quite earthbound.
The bus ride back to Iowa City?
“Be a long one,” he said.