(Big hat-tip to the fabulous Horace E. Cow for his help with this visual. -- RB)
Whatcha gonna do? Well, if you're this guy, you're going to get stiffarmed into oblivion:
Over the last three games, Mark Weisman has run for 507 yards and 7 touchdowns (I'd give him credit for 8, personally, because I still don't know how the officials overturned his second touchdown on Saturday, but hey) on 72 carries. That's a scorching 7.0 yards per carry. Over the last two games (against Central Michigan and Minnesota) that average has risen to an even-more-blistering 8.2 yards per carry. (Amusingly, the national leader in yards per carry -- among players who have at least 50 carries -- is a player that Weisman could have been blocking for in an alternate reality, Air Force RB Cody Getz, currently averaging 8.2 yards per carry.)
Of course, several observers have been quick to pump the brakes during Weisman's meteoric rise in September. After his breakthrough performance, a 113-yard, 3 TD showing against UNI in a little more than a half of work, the refrain went, "Well, that was good, but UNI's an FCS defense. Let's see him do it against an FBS defense."
After his follow-up performance, a jaw-dropping 217-yard, 3 TD outing against Central Michigan, the refrain went, "Well, that was good, but Central Michigan's a lousy MAC defense. Let's see him do it against a BCS defense."
And after his most recent standout performance, an impressive 177-yard, 1 TD day (again in barely more than a half of work) against Minnesota, the refrain went, "Well that was good, but Minnesota's a mediocre defense. Let's see him handle an elite defense."
To be sure, there are tougher days ahead for the Hebrew Hammer. UNI ranks 55th in the FCS in rush defense, Central Michigan checks in at 119th in the FCS in run defense, and Minnesota is just 51st (they were 45th prior to getting Hammered last Saturday). None of these rush defenses were the second coming of the Steel Curtain. By comparison, three of Iowa's next five opponents -- Michigan State (18th), Northwestern (13th), and Purdue (22nd) -- rank in the top 25 nationally in run defense. (One of the outliers, Penn State, ranks 46th, but has been playing much better lately; the other is Indiana, who is Central Michigan-level terrible at run defense.) We'll know much more about Weisman's ability by the end of October.
That said... he's on a tremendous run (no pun intended). His current three-game stretch is one of the best by an Iowa running back in the last nine years (ESPN's Game Log data goes back to 2004, hence that cut-off date). In 2005, Albert Young ran for 480 yards (but just two touchdowns) over three games against Northwestern, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Shonn Greene was extraordinarily consistent in 2008, but his high-water mark may have been his three-game stretch at the end of the season, 476 yards and 7 touchdowns against Purdue, Minnesota, and South Carolina. Marcus Coker put together an incredible string of performances in October and November last year, capped off by 523 yards and 6 touchdowns against Indiana, Minnesota, and Michigan. All of those performances came against Big Ten defenses, while just one of Weisman's bruising outings has been against a Big Ten foe. There are certainly still things for Weisman to prove.
Similarly, Weisman's sudden success wouldn't have been possible without help from his teammates. The offensive line has been absolutely beastly over the last three weeks, opening up some gaping, monster truck-sized holes for Weisman in those games. This is the sort of bruising, bullying performances out of the Iowa offensive line we'd dreamed of seeing in the summer; it's arguably the best they've looked as a unit since 2008. The tight ends have done a good job of sealing off the edges on several of Weisman's runs, fullback Brad Rogers has had a hand in clearing the first obstacle on many runs, and even the wide receivers have contributed a few solid blocks downfield.
Weisman's had plenty of help during this great run -- but he also possesses some excellent skills of his own that have been critical to his success. He seems to read his blockers better than any Iowa running back since Greene. He doesn't spend a lot of time dancing behind the line of scrimmage -- he tends to see an opening and go. Just eight of his 74 carries this season have gone for no yardage or negative yards. His pad level is generally very good. He almost never goes down on first contact and he's incredible at gaining extra yards after initial contact when he gets beyond the line of scrimmage. And describing his stiff-arm as "punishing" seems like the understatement of the year. He seems hellbent on singlehandedly bringing "bitchmaking" back to Iowa football.
So, yes, there's still plenty for Weisman to prove this season and yards figure to be harder to come by against the likes of Michigan State and Penn State over the next few games (especially since Weisman should now be a surprise to precisely no one and teams will be gameplanning to slow him down). But there's a lot to like about Weisman's start and any questions still lingering about his ability to be a starting running back in the Big Ten should be dead and buried. Watching him run and then watching Marcus Coker run... are there really any profound differences between them? Coker may have had a bit more speed in the open field, but that might be it.
Coker ran for nearly 1400 yards last year and while I don't expect Weisman to match that -- he has two fewer games to work with and figures (maybe? hopefully?) to share some carries with Damon Bullock or Jordan Canzeri over the back half of the season -- there's no reason to think Weisman can't be a very productive back for Iowa and push 1000 yards (though this is also contingent on the run blocking from the offensive line, tight ends, wide receivers, and fullback continuing to be excellent). He may be a white walk-on running back, but he's not Sam Brownlee 2.0. And while we'll forever be grateful to Brownlee for stepping up and doing what he did for Iowa in 2004, it's a very good thing that Weisman's ceiling is higher than that. Let's see how high it goes.