Iowa’s running game is one big, gassy stomachache with punting and turnovers part of the problem

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Five years ago on this very field that was rain soaked and sloppy, I wrote that the Hawkeyes’ double-overtime victory was the most Ferentz-like in coach Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa career.

On that day, offense was more theory than reality, and Iowa slugged its way through the more talented Spartans with a modest running attack, ball security, defense and punting. Saturday against Michigan State, only one of those principles of which Ferentz believes like a Constitutional amendment was present in the Hawkeyes’ 17-10 loss at Spartan Stadium.

“If we turn it over, don’t run the ball and have penalties, it’s not going to be good,” Ferentz said. “It’s certainly the case [Saturday]. It was a big factor. All three of those things were a big factor in [Saturday’s] game.”

Iowa’s punting remains a soggy log in the field-position kiddie pool. The Hawkeyes were backed up repeatedly in the first half but couldn’t flip the field.

Twice, Iowa fumbled inside the Michigan State 35-yard line, including a sequence where the ball slipped out of quarterback Nate Stanley’s hand and was recovered by Spartans  linebacker  Joe Bachie inside the 10-yard line.

But worst of all, Iowa can’t run the football. That’s the team’s primary tenet. Big, bad Iowa, which puts more offensive linemen than any other Big Ten program, has run the last two weeks like it’s stuck in quicksand. The Hawkeyes ran 25 times for 19 yards against the Spartans. Nineteen yards? That’s the lowest amount since getting trapped in a minus-9-yard headlock in 2005 at Ohio State.

It’s perplexing, really. Iowa has an NFL running back in Akrum Wadley. Iowa returned all but eight total starters from the 2016  offensive line that was given the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s best. Iowa should average at least 4.0 yards per carry in every game. When the Hawkeyes are in the 4.5-to-5.0 range, they’re a championship-caliber squad.

Instead, Iowa sits at 3.4 yards per carry for the season. That includes wins against three nonconference opponents that were among the nation’s worst run stuffers last season. Now in Big Ten play, Iowa is one of the worst running teams in the country, ranked somewhere around 108, 109. You know, in the FBS-FCS borderland of Old Dominion, Akron and Georgia Southern. That’s like being a G8 country with a gross domestic product sandwiched by a few Balkan countries. 

“It’s definitely not good enough,” Iowa right tackle Sean Welsh said. “We really need to improve. Again, I think it’s execution. Simple execution. Guys just getting their job done every play.”

This week was 19 rushing yards. Last week, it was 82. Since 2015, when Iowa rushes for 100 yards, it’s 23-1. When the Hawkeyes don’t, they’re 0-8. If there was a statistic more clear in the path to victory, it would have flashing lights and orange cones.

As bad as the running game was — or is — the turnovers were what cost the the Hawkeyes a chance to win at Michigan State. After the second-half kickoff, Iowa moved from its 31 to the Michigan State 5. Trailing 17-7, Stanley dropped back, moved up in the pocket and tried to pass. The ball inexplicably slipped out of his hand and into Bachie’s mitts. That cost the Hawkeyes at least a field goal.

“Nate’s done a lot of good things, but that certainly looked like a freak play from where I was standing watching the replay,” Ferentz said.

“I’ve never had that happen to me before,” Stanley said. “It’s something you have to deal with.”

A possession later, after Iowa’s defense stopped the Spartans on fourth down, Iowa was back in Michigan State territory. On first-and-10 at the 38, Stanley whipped a sidearm pass to freshman Brandon Smith, who fumbled after picking up 3 yards. The Spartans recovered to end another threat.

“There was no reason why we couldn’t win the game in the second half,” Ferentz said. “But those 2 turnovers certainly didn’t help us.”

Field position certainly was another gassy problem for Iowa. Iowa’s average starting position was its 22. Michigan State’s was its 39. Iowa punter Colten Rastetter averaged 37.8 yards per kick with one 49-yarder. None of them ran out of real estate. Michigan State’s Jake Hartbarger set a school record by putting all 5 of his punts inside the Iowa 20.

Running the football. Field position. Turnovers. All are staples to Ferentz-ball. All went in Michigan State’s favor on Saturday. That’s a stomachache in need of Mylicon drops.

“We have to find balance [on offense],” Ferentz said. “The best way to find balance is we’re going to have to do a little better job of coming up with some things we can do and where we can create that. We’ll work on that this week. Certainly, it will be at the top of the list, that and ball security, and we’ll see if we can come up with a better answer next Saturday.”

If the answer remains out there after next Saturday against Illinois, it’s going to be a long, gassy season in Iowa City.

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