July 20, 2024

Kirk Ferentz utilizing running backs ahead of Iowa’s Big Ten opener

Iowa Hawkeyes Football

Iowa running back Leshon Williams runs drills with teammates before game against Nebraska Friday November 25, 2022 at Kinnick Stadium. (Lynn Harrington/stayaliveinpower5)

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Although the injury bug has recently plagued the Hawkeyes’ backfield, it allowed the opportunity for some younger running backs to surface from the shadows.

The running back room looked dim for Iowa after Kaleb Johnson and Jaziun Patterson suffered lower leg injuries over the past week. However, Leshon Williams, Kamari Moulton and Terrell Washington stepped up to the plate, which encouraged Coach Kirk Ferentz about Iowa’s ground attack.

After all, Williams rushed for a season-high, 145 yards in the victory over Western Michigan. Moulton added two rushing scores, and Washington averaged 5.2 yards per carry against the Broncos. Ferentz is expecting Williams, along with the two true freshman, to keep the wheels rolling at Penn State, despite being down Johnson and Patterson.

“Both Jaz and Kaleb won’t be available this week, so we’ll evaluate it each week as we go forward, but they’re both going to be out Saturday,” Ferentz said. “We’ll go with the guys we finished up with the other day, and that is a positive.”

Iowa has averaged 151.3 rush yards per game, which is tied for 72nd in the FBS. However, Penn State’s defense is only allowing 96.7 yards on the ground per game, including 3.12 per carry. Ferentz understands the running game has to be efficient to control the clock, and set up the play-action pass downfield.

It also keeps defenses honest, and from keying in on quarterback Cade McNamara. The Hawkeyes have already lost their leading pass-catcher in tight end Luke Lachey for the year. Lachey’s loss will put more pressure on McNamara and the running game. Practice has been intense this week as Iowa (3-0) prepares for its’ toughest test of the season. The Nittany Lions are going to unleash the ‘Whiteout’ at Beaver Stadium, so the Hawkeyes will be walking into a huge snakepit.

Williams is going to need to pick up where he left off, but against a big upgrade in competition. Ferentz knows the better the running game is against Penn State (3-0), the more options it’ll bring Iowa’s offense as a whole.

“We’re better if we can play balanced, at least have the threat of being balanced,” he said. “If they make you one dimensional, they can get after the quarterback very aggressively, and they’ve got a bunch of guys up front that can move and they’re really slippery and just crafty.”

The No. 24 Hawkeyes have won their last two clashes with the Nittany Lions, including a 20-point victory at Happy Valley in 2020. Iowa ran the ball 46 times for 175 yards in the last meeting. Ferentz wants that type of production again, because it tones down the large crowd, and reduces the noise levels tremendously. The seventh-ranked Nittany Lions want to end their losing streak to the Hawkeyes, so Ferentz is anticipating a hostile environment.

Iowa hasn’t beaten a top-10 team on the road since September of 2021, and the fans feel it’s long overdue. If the running backs can put the offense in short yardage situations, hold onto the ball and block effectively, the game should be close.

Regardless, the backs are going to need solid blocking from the big boys up front, or it could be a long night. Ferentz feels the running game is in good hands with Moulton and Washington adding depth. Big Ten play is going to require a step up in physicality, and Iowa’s running backs must embrace it all. Ferentz is basically giving his rushers wings and want to see them fly against an elite defense.

“It’s going to be a different arena from what they’re used to, but they’re going to find out now, so here we go.”