Iowa plays at Pittsburgh this Saturday, and as we expected in the preseason, one of the nation's top rushing attacks will be featured. It just belongs to that other team wearing gold.
Running the ball has long been the bread, butter and the spreading knife for Kirk Ferentz's team, and that figured to be the strength of this year's club. After all, the offensive line returned three starters from last season -- including All-American candidate Brandon Scherff at left tackle -- and a fourth player who'd seen a lot of action in Andrew Donnal. The backfield was also loaded with a bevy of experienced tailbacks unaffected by the program's so-called "curse" at the position.
Yet through three weeks, Iowa's running game has ground to a halt. The team ranks 11th in the Big Ten at 131 rushing yards per game, and its 3.6 yards per rush is just 91st nationally. The Hawkeyes' leading rusher after three games is senior Mark Weisman, who has only 96 total yards. He finished with 975 a year ago.
So what's the issue? Blocking? Scheme? Running backs not making the right cuts?
"I don't know," Ferentz said Tuesday. "If I knew that, we'd probably be running the ball better."
Not exactly the most reassuring answer. But Ferentz also said that working in some new players on offense has taken time, and opposing teams are loading the box to defend against Iowa's running game.
"Maybe a little bit," center Austin Blythe told ESPN.com when asked about that latter point. "But at the same time, it shouldn't matter, as long as we block the guys we say we're going to block."
Blythe sees it as more of a matter of chemistry. Watching the film, he said, he can see a lack of cohesion on offense, as getting all 11 players to do the right thing has been a problem.
"I think we're just one detail away from being a really good running offense," he said. "We just have to get everybody on the same page."
The Hawkeyes weren't at full strength in last week's 20-17 loss to Iowa State. Scherff played despite having his knee scoped earlier in the week, and tailback Jordan Canzeri had only three carries in part because he got banged up on a kick return, Ferentz said
Iowa's running game would really be struggling if not for quarterback Jake Rudock's productivity there. Though almost all of his runs are on scrambles and not designed plays, Rudock is the team's second-leading rusher at 92 yards. Take away his stats and a couple successful reverses by receiver Tevaun Smith, and the Hawkeyes have only 265 rushing yards in three games.
"He's done a nice job of feeling the right time to do that at the appropriate time," Ferentz said of Rudock's scrambling. "He typically has a pretty good knowledge of where he needs to get for the first down."
Other Big Ten teams have struggled to get their traditional running games going, notably Penn State and Maryland. But they didn't have the expectations and pound-first philosophy of Iowa. Instead, it's this week's opponent that looks like a more traditional Big Ten team.
Pitt, under former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, is fourth in the FBS in rushing yards per game, while tailback James Conner leads the nation in rushing yards. Those are the kinds of numbers many expected the Hawkeyes to put up this season, but they're still trying to regain a dominance on the ground.
"That's going to be our big focus in practice this week," Blythe said.
If things don't improve, Iowa could find itself running low on wins.