There aren't many football teams with as clear-cut and drastic a turning point in their season as Iowa had in 2012; halfway through the season, Iowa was 4-2 (2-0) coming into the Penn State game, and both of those losses were close home affairs that really should have gone the other way. Granted, Iowa didn't look very pretty in the process, but 4-2 is 4-2, and upstart Penn State was a two-point underdog coming into the night game at Kinnick.
We don't need to tell you what horror ensued, just that Iowa's season went completely off the rails thereafter. That 38-14 loss was a disaster from the start, with tackle Brandon Scherff and guard Andrew Donnal both felled by season-ending leg injuries within a span of three plays in the first quarter. Iowa rushed for just 20 yards that day—six fewer than Matt Frickin' McGloin managed on the ground—and the running game was really never the same as Iowa slumped to six straight losses to end the season.
So how devastating was it for Iowa's rushing productivity when Scherff and Donnal were taken off the field for the balance of the year? Worse than you'd think.
Iowa rushed for just 123 yards per game on the 2012 season, worst in the Big Ten and 101st-ranked in the nation; by way of comparison, that horrendous passing attack ranked 99th nationally and seventh in the conference. That? That ain't good.
Coming into the Penn State game, though, the Hawkeye rushing attack at least looked borderline competent. Through the games of October 13, Iowa was rushing for 154.7 yards per game, which isn't world-class but at least gets you through a game. After Scherff and Donnal went out, the running game went kaput; Iowa averaged just 91.2 yards per game in the last half of the season.
This wasn't just a matter of Iowa abandoning the run post-injury, either. Iowa rushed the ball 34.5 times per game for 4.48 ypc in the first six games. Last six: 32.8 rushes per game, 2.78 yards per rush. That's a 1.7 ypc dropoff, and that is utterly catastrophic when you don't have a passing game to fall back on.
The passing yardage remained steady, by the way; it dipped just 1.6 yards per game after the first half of the year.
"Ah," one might say. "But Iowa's competition was significantly stronger in that second half, where all the opponents were in the Big Ten whereas only two were in the first half." Um... about that. Let's take a closer look.
One way to evaluate Iowa's effectiveness on the ground is to compare what it did against opposing rush defenses to what those defenses gave up on the ground against everybody else. This isn't a perfect tool, of course; even Big Ten teams faced different slates of opponents, to say nothing of the complications of non-conference play. But at the very least we see a bigger picture. And the picture is not pretty.
Click for bigger picture. "OPP" represents opponents' rush defense stats. "OPP-I" represents opponents' rush defense stats adjusted to games excluding Iowa. "I" represents Iowa's rush offense stats in those games. "DELTA" represents the difference between the adjusted defensive stats and the Iowa game. Please do not throw yourself off a bridge after reading.
For one, though Iowa's second-half opponents were all Big Ten foes, the teams gave up over 20 yards more on the ground per game against non-Iowa competition, and nearly 0.40 yards per carry more. In other words, if Iowa was going to make hay in the rushing game last season, it was going to be in the back half.
Instead, horror. Iowa went from rushing for 0.43 yards per carry more than the opponents' adjusted average to 1.65 yards per carry fewer, a dropoff of over 2.0 ypc against the adjusted average.
When even Indiana's defensive line is beating your blocks...
Certainly, the issue of Mark Weisman's health is a major factor here. Iowa's four games rushing above the opponent's adjusted season average all came with Weisman healthy, and it's fair to argue he wasn't 100% after he came back against Michigan.
But a healthy Iowa offensive line turned Damon Bullock into a 150-yard rusher against a surprisingly decent Northern Illinois defensive front, and without a serviceable left tackle or right guard Bullock couldn't crack the century mark against Indiana or Purdue, two lightweights. Could Weisman have hit 100 yards against those teams with a pair of good legs? Perhaps. But Nebraska's rush defense was a disaster (by Nebraska standards) and Iowa couldn't even muster 3 yards a pop against it anyway. Weisman only managed 91 yards on 29 carries in that game, and by the fourth quarter it was Nebraska's line and not Iowa's that was moving the point of attack. This is a line problem first and foremost.
The good news is that Scherff and Donnal have been healthy since before spring practice started, and there's significant experience along the rest of the line as well. If anyone's a neophyte it's Austin Blythe at center, but Blythe cut his teeth at guard last year (remember, everybody plays guard) and he's got serious talent. So unlike other damaging player losses, we're not stuck here without an answer as to how Kirk Ferentz fixes the problem. He has his guys back.
But offensive lines losing time and starts to injuries is fairly common, and the lines that don't are considered lucky, not the norm. So it's not as if we're inking in 12+ games from anybody on the front five, much less Iowa's most important linemen. Anyway, we'll let Mr. Vint go into greater deal on the line's talent situation when the OL Assume The Position comes out.
Suffice it to say, though, Iowa's rushing game absolutely fell off a cliff as soon as it lost Scherff and Donnal, and it probably cost Ferentz and the Hawkeyes any hope of putting together even a mediocre season. Here's to hoping that injury situation was an anomaly; if not, lord only knows what the future of the program holds.