The Iowa Caucus: Running game

Dec. 24, 2015, 1:16 a.m.

This is the third installment of The Stanford Daily’s seven-part preview series on the Iowa Hawkeyes, who will face Stanford in the 102nd Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California on Jan. 1, 2016. This piece will look at Iowa’s running game. Previous parts can be read at the following links:

Part 1: Overview
Part 2: Passing game

The low-down: Throughout the Kirk Ferentz era, Iowa has consistently prided itself on its bruising offensive lines and powerful running backs. While quality quarterbacks and receivers have come and gone from Iowa City, the run game has managed to remain much more of a constant. The team’s success on the ground has earned it plenty of national attention, with three Hawkeye offensive tackles having been taken in the first round of the NFL Draft since 2010.

While 2015 may not have been the Hawkeyes’ best year in terms of physicality, Iowa still has plenty of talent to go around when pounding the ball forward. Rimington Award finalist center Austin Blythe and all-Big Ten right guard Jordan Walsh feature on a capable if not extraordinary offensive line, and Jordan Canzeri anchors a committee of running backs that has collectively rushed for nearly 2,300 yards this season. Don’t discount the role of the fullbacks either, as Macon Plewa and Adam Cox have made some critically important blocks on some of the team’s biggest runs.

An added element of Iowa’s run game is the mobility of quarterback C.J. Beathard. Though a lingering groin injury sustained against Illinois has limited him for much of the second half of the season, Beathard can still be dangerous and is frequently used in short yardage situations. The Tennessee native possesses a sneaky speed and can be difficult to run down when he breaks free — something a few overconfident defensive backs have had to learn the hard way.

Best player: Blythe and Walsh surely contend for this honor, but based on how much the team’s running game suffered upon his injury in the Michigan State game it has to go to Canzeri. Canzeri led the Hawkeyes this season with 976 rushing yards, a figure made more impressive by the fact that he missed almost four games and performed in a limited capacity immediately after his return.

While both Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels Jr. have performances near or above the 200-yard mark in his absence, Canzeri has been the most reliable threat for the Hawkeyes through his remarkable versatility. Though he lacks truly elite speed or Derrick Henry-esque size, his ability to find holes and extend runs after contact makes him a dangerous threat to even the most disciplined rush defenses. Canzeri seems to especially succeed at running off-tackle and can seriously stretch defenses that overcommit against Iowa’s experienced interior linemen.

Best performance: It’s hard to top the two-week span in early October when Iowa took on Illinois and Northwestern. Even with starting tackle Boone Meyers injured, Canzeri had a career day against the Illini, taking a school-record 43 carries for 256 yards and a 75-yard touchdown. The backup missed his encore against the Wildcats after picking up an ankle sprain, but fourth-string Wadley proved more than happy to fill in the gap with a 204-yard performance against a team that had held Stanford star Christian McCaffrey to just 66 yards one month earlier. These signature games helped Iowa get through the worst of Beathard’s injury and remain undefeated through perhaps its toughest stretch of conference play.

Worst performance: Iowa’s running game didn’t totally unravel against the nationally fourth-ranked Wisconsin rush defense, but the team couldn’t find much room at all in its out-of-conference battle against Pittsburgh. The Hawkeyes managed just 105 yards on the ground against the Panthers with Beathard being the only back to approach 5 yards a carry. Canzeri did succeed in putting the ball in the end zone twice, but his 12 carries only netted the team 49 yards of offense. Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, Beathard and kicker Marshall Koehn kept Iowa’s season on track through their solid individual efforts.

Highlights of the season: Wadley’s first TD run against Northwestern is as close as it comes to a prototypical big play from the Hawkeyes’ committee of backs. As the Wildcats all bite down toward the middle of the field, Wadley decides to take it outside and uses his speed to find the edge. The running back gets a big block from tight end Henry Krieger Coble, makes the Northwestern cornerback miss and it’s off to the races.

Most of the plays run by Ferentz and offensive coordinator Greg Davis don’t deviate too much from that general game plan and rely on execution in the trenches to be successful. However, the Iowa playbook is a bit larger than it often appears, and every once in a while the team succeeds in catching its opponent off guard. Take this designed run play to Beathard, for example (skip to around 8:34). The Cyclones’ single-man spy proves totally inadequate, and the Hawkeye QB outruns nearly everyone for a 57-yard gain.

Biggest questions: It’s not exactly technical, but a big question for the Hawkeyes pertains to the health of Canzeri. The running back missed most of the Michigan State game after spraining his ankle, and while he is slated to play in the Rose Bowl he’ll need to come back stronger than he did when he returned from his first injury of the season (10 carries for 31 yards against Minnesota) in order to seriously test the Stanford defense.

Matchup with Stanford: Iowa’s tackles, typically one of the team’s greatest strengths, are perhaps the least prepared to deal with the pressure of Stanford’s front seven. Meyers and Ike Boettger haven’t been a gaping hole in their first season as starters, but both could be tested by the Cardinal’s group of veteran outside linebackers and ever-improving defensive ends.

Stanford, meanwhile, will need to keep its tackling at a high level if it hopes to limit the damage done by Iowa’s speedier backs. Though this hasn’t been a ridiculously nagging issue for the team, the Cardinal did fall short in this area against the high-caliber running games of Oregon and Notre Dame. Canzeri, Wadley and the powerful Daniels have built careers on breaking incomplete tackles, and this committee could thrive if Stanford doesn’t shore up these errors.

Contact Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’

Andrew Mather served as a sports editor and as the Chief Operating Officer of The Daily. A devout Clippers and Iowa Hawkeyes fan from the suburbs of Los Angeles, Mather grew accustomed to watching his favorite programs snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He brought this nihilistic pessimism to The Daily, where he often felt a sense of déjà vu while covering basketball, football and golf.

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