Iowa football: 3 moves to help Akrum Wadley and the run game

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Kirk Ferentz didn’t need an extensive film breakdown to know where the Iowa offense must improve.

It’s the run game.

“We will work on that this week,” said Ferentz after the Michigan State loss. “That will be the topic. That and ball security and see if we can’t come up with a better answer next Saturday.”

Getting better results is a must.

The ground game is like an old pickup truck stuck in a muddy field during a rainstorm. It needs a little help to get going.

The most important thing for Iowa is to get its identity back. It starts with the run game, but it’s more than that.

The Hawkeyes need to get the ball to offensive centerpiece Akrum Wadley with space to maneuver.

What Iowa is doing wrong

The Hawkeyes aren’t asking too much out of Wadley or the run game.
Wadley MSU TD

This 9-yard play is all the Hawkeyes are after. The offensive line locks on to defenders and opens a hole. It creates room for Wadley to move. The fact Wadley makes two defenders miss is great. The touchdown is a bonus.

Everything is reliant on execution up front and opening a running lane for its star back.

“The main thing is we have to come off the ball and start attacking,” offensive lineman Boone Myers said. “[We are] just being a little tentative I think. We need to start rolling off the ball.”

That kind of push isn’t there. Opponents are controlling the line of scrimmage. Tight end T.J. Hockenson said the Hawkeyes are moving too much laterally and not enough horizontally.

The first three games were subpar by normal Iowa standards, but were a lot better than before the additional problems popped up.

Games Run Yards Per Game
First three 180
Last two 50.5

Penn State and Michigan State are both top 40 run defenses nationally. Each sold out to stop the run, using as many defenders as needed to do so. Ferentz quickly mentioned blitz pickup when discussing areas of improvement during his press conference on Tuesday.

“They did a good job taking that away from us, made us play left-handed the other day,” Ferentz said.

The problems go beyond blitz pickup. The blocking isn’t there when against a four-man front. Also, injuries piled up early in the season.

The biggest indictment of the running game comes when the team loses yardage on plays in passing situations when opponents don’t overload the box with the defenders. It happened against Michigan State.

The lack of a run game is even impacting Iowa’s audibles and/or uses of run-pass options (RPO). The Spartans neutralized it by essentially playing man coverage.

The numbers don’t favor a run play. Seven defenders are in the box vs. six blockers. Quarterback Nate Stanley audibles to a pass play, but it’s not a great option either. Wide receiver Matt VandeBerg can only block one of the two defenders. Wide receiver Nick Easley needs to make one defender miss.

The play goes nowhere because there was no real good option. The defensive play call is a big reason why. It doesn’t help when a defense doesn’t fear any part of an offense. It becomes easier to take things away.

Early in the season, RPOs made the most of the mismatches out of twin or trip sets in the passing game. Right now, with the run game stalling, a play designed to take advantage of what a defense gives the offense isn’t always finding an out.

Spread out the defense

Penn State and Michigan State cramming as many defenders near the line of scrimmage as possible to take away the run is a big talking point. There is plenty of truth to it.
Michigan St. run stuff

It’s hard to run when nine players, like in the play above, are hovering around the box. Iowa players are quick to point out the team was successful in the past in these types of situations.

It’s true. So is the fact part of the job of the coaching staff is to put players in the best positions to succeed. Part of it is play calling. Part of it is scheming.

The Hawkeyes want to utilize two-tight end sets and run the football. They found success in the first few games with this formation. It didn’t work against Penn State or Michigan State. When Iowa brings out both Noah Fant and Hockenson, the Spartans and Nittany Lions countered by moving its defenders up, just like it did on the play above.

“Sometimes I see daylight,” said Wadley on how runs are unfolding. “Sometimes I don’t.”

What about the Wadley touchdown the Hawkeyes need to replicate? They lined up in a three-receiver set. Only six defenders were in the box. One advantage to the spread is it can move defenders away from the line and give the offensive line a numbers advantage in the run game.

It happened on the Wadley touchdown. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has tried various formations and looks to jump-start the running game over the last two weeks.

Running out of more three- and four-wide receiver sets may be the key to Wadley seeing more daylight.

Utilize Wadley any way possible

Wadley is best with green grass around him. The offense is at its best when it happens. Both second-half touchdowns at Penn State came when Wadley touched the ball in space.

It’s easy to say the better Wadley plays, the better the offense does.

Games Rush Yard Avg. Wadley Total Yard Avg.
First three 180 136.7
Last two 50.5 101.0

Wadley’s 2 fourth-quarter touchdowns against Penn State inflate his recent numbers. Those 105 yards account for 52.0 percent of his yardage output the last two weeks.

The offense works best when Wadley makes plays. Outside of VandeBerg, every other skill position player is new or an underclassman.

Lining up in the backfield isn’t the only way to get him the football. Wadley playing in the slot was a hot topic last season and he does occasionally line up there now, but his time in the slot dwindled once backup running back James Butler went down with an elbow injury.

Jet sweeps, screens and passing routes out of the slot can be effective ways to get Wadley the ball in outside-of-the-box ways. Iowa did something similar last season when opponents loaded up on the run game. Wadley caught 25 passes in the final six games.

Is he up for something similar?

“Definitely,” Wadley said. “It’s Coach Brian. He calls the plays. Coach call and players play.”

Throw a changeup

The Hawkeyes are a run-first team. Every opponent knows it. If the run continues to struggle against Big Ten foes, switching things up seems like an option.

Iowa could use the pass to set up the run, similar to the way NFL teams like the New England Patriots use the pass to build an early lead and the run game to win it by running down the clock in the second half.

Throwing more out of three- and four-receiver sets is an option, but it’s probably not one the coaching staff will entertain. It’s not who Kirk Ferentz is.

“I don’t envision us being on that path right now,” Ferentz said.

The final solution

Reviving the run is a must for the Hawkeyes. A future opponent will try what Penn State and Michigan State did again. It may not be Illinois on Saturday (12 p.m. ET, BTN). The Fighting Illini  are No. 91 nationally in rush defense. But after the bye week, someone will.

The Hawkeyes know the question at hand. It’s up to them to find the answer.

The post Iowa football: 3 moves to help Akrum Wadley and the run game appeared first on Land of 10.

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