IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The strangest thing has happened to the Iowa Hawkeyes.
They seem to have forgotten how to run the ball and it's threatening a once-promising season.
Iowa (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten), which has been known for a physical and balanced attack under 19-year coach Kirk Ferentz, has seen its ground game bottom out over the last two weeks. The Hawkeyes have run for just 101 yards on 48 carries against Penn State and Michigan State, predictably losing both ahead of a must-win on Saturday against Illinois (2-2, 0-1).
"There's no magic formula," said Ferentz, who noted the Nittany Lions and Spartans' prowess against the run. "They made us play left-handed (last week), and the week before we had our hit and miss-type plays. It just all about trying to develop more consistency and be able to sustain it a little bit."
What has made Iowa's recent inability to run the ball so peculiar is that it entered 2017 with one of the nation's best offensive lines and two running backs, Akrum Wadley and James Butler, who ran for over 1,000 yards last season.
But the coaching staff has been forced to shuffle linemen around every week, and losing Butler to an elbow injury has hurt the Hawkeyes perhaps more than expected.
Senior tackle Ike Boettger is out for the season with an Achilles tendon injury. Senior Boone Myers has been relegated to part-time duty, largely at guard rather than tackle, because of an ankle injury he's been playing through since August. Senior Sean Welsh, a natural guard, has moved over to tackle, leaving redshirt freshman tackle Alaric Jackson as the only Iowa only lineman to start every game at the same spot.
According to Myers, the Hawkeyes have been tentative at times.
"We've just got to come off the ball and start attacking," Myers said. 'We've got to get in a groove and start rolling off the ball."
Butler is expected to return for the Oct. 21 game at Northwestern. The bulk of the carries have gone to Wadley in Butler's absence, but Wadley's game is based off of making plays in space instead of breaking tackles.
Wadley had just 30 yards on 17 carries in last week's 17-10 loss to the Spartans, who might have been more susceptible to the more physical Butler.
"We've just got to be more patient. Stay on the right track, believe and follow the blocks," Wadley said.
Quarterback Nate Stanley and Iowa's receivers share some of the blame as well.
Stanley has been impressive in his first five starts, throwing for 1,043 yards and 12 touchdowns. But he has yet to develop a consistent touch on deep balls, which has allowed opposing defenses to successfully gamble by playing closer to the line of scrimmage and blow up run plays with blitzes.
"I think just being able to execute some of those deep throws (is important). I've missed a couple of those," Stanley said. "Hopefully, when we start connecting on those, it'll loosen things up."