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Matchup to Watch: Iowa’s Run Game vs. Air, at This Point

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The Fighting Illini are anything but in the run game. Can the Hawkeyes finally take advantage?

NCAA Football: Illinois at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Better people than me have spilled plenty of Internet ink on the Noah Fant situation. Kirk Ferentz called him a “specialist” this week which means calling a play where throwing and then catching a football is a specialized situation in 2018, the Year of our Lord, according to the head ball coach.

Cool.

But what about when Illinois is on the schedule?

They are, by most accounts, one of the worst defenses at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. 120th out of 130 teams in scoring. 126th in passing. And 123rd in rushing, where they give up 247 yards per game.

It’s the last piece which is most enticing for Kirk, I’m sure. After all, Iowa has matched that total exactly ZERO times this season. They do it by the big play, where they’ve given up:

  • 81 runs of 10+ yards (125th)
  • 23 runs of 20+ yards (116th)
  • 13 runs of 30+ yards (115th)
  • 9 runs of 40+ yards (118th)

Iowa has 42, 5, 1, and 1 for each of the above categories.

So this is the right team to jumpstart Iowa’s rushing offense like the probably-too-old-for-late-November car battery that it is.

What runs counter to Iowa’s subpar rushing attack is their time of possession. Brian Ferentz has, dare I say, done a good job at manufacturing a top 10 unit in the category at 33:19 a game. They’re even second best in the Big 10 using conference only games. Of course this is goosed by the 40+ minute game against Maryland, but they also had the stinker against Wisconsin.

They’re low-key very good at possessing the football! This makes their inability to sustain a rushing attack (only three conference games over 4.0 YPC) all the more perplexing. Again, this is the perfect team for Iowa to play Kirk’s preferred style, as they have allowed less than that average only once. Against Western Illinois!

Scott Dochterman has been harping on Iowa’s inability any of their three running backs - Ivory Kelly-Martin, Mekhi Sargent, or Toren Young - over 100 yards on the season for much of this season. He even lead with it in his gamer from this past weekend. Ferentz thought the second half rushing attack which produced 17 yards on eight carries was “the biggest story of the game.” With his background as an offensive line coach, it’s understandable he’d lean on statistics with which he’s familiar.

I’ll reiterate again, if Iowa’s going to break this barrier, it’s probably gonna be against the Fighting Illini. They have allowed 100-yard rushers in seven of their 10 games, including two against Wisconsin.

So the story of Iowa’s latest loss seems to be the story of the Hawkeyes’ season. If Iowa cannot run the ball without Noah Fant on the field, they certainly won’t be able to with him on it since he’s a pass-catching specialist. Despite the fact the Hawkeyes do alright keeping the ball away from opponents, I suspect we are going to see Iowa’s gameplan reflect what Kirk wants Iowa to do best: run the football.

Until then, it’s unlikely we see what Iowa’s best playmaker can do.

Unless he runs.