Iowa’s run game exploded with potential against Nebraska

Mekhi Sargent had a career day against Nebraska, showing potential for what’s to come.

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Iowa’s run game exploded with potential against Nebraska

Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent carries the ball during Iowa's game against Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018.

Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent carries the ball during Iowa's game against Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018.

Nick Rohlman

Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent carries the ball during Iowa's game against Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018.

Nick Rohlman

Nick Rohlman

Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent carries the ball during Iowa's game against Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018.

Anna Kayser, Assistant Sports Editor

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In the past two weeks, Iowa’s running backs have stepped up in a big way to change the narrative about the running game.

Against Northwestern on Nov. 10, Iowa collected only 64 yards in four quarters.

One week later, on the road at Illinois, Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young took charge for 188 combined yards, part of the team’s 203.

On the rainy Nov. 23 Kinnick Stadium finale to the season, the running game totaled 266 yards. The running-back duo had all but 10, with quarterback Nate Stanley taking those himself for a first down.

“We looked for more details that not everybody notices,” Young said. “I think as an offense, we did a good job with executing [against Nebraska] and focusing on those little details.”

With a young running-back group and big names missing from last season, the production has fluctuated and at times has forced the passing game to step up.

However, that comes with the fluctuation of the game of football, and with key weapons in the backfield, Iowa was more than prepared for the challenge.

“Some weeks, the running game’s not going to be as strong — we’ve got to rely on the passing game,” Young said. “So just understanding [the ups and downs of football] and just being the close-knit group we are [is important].”

For eight games of the season when Ivory Kelly-Martin was in the lineup, Iowa used a rotating system with its running backs. The coaching staff tried to split the carries evenly among them.

With just Sargent and Young in the lineup because of a Kelly-Martin injury, Sargent was the first Iowa running back to break the 100-yard mark at Illinois (121). Then, against Nebraska, he did even more.

“It’s been fun and enjoyable to watch Mekhi continue to grow,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “You look at him, he doesn’t look anything special, doesn’t look that big, this or that, but the guy is a good player. I think he is deceptively good, deceptively strong when he runs the ball.”

His final line included 26 carries for a net 173 yards, with 1 rushing touchdown and 1 receiving touchdown.

The success in the running game was shown through both backs’ ability to cut around the defense and the offensive line’s ability to protect them and create gaps.

“The play was actually designed to go to the weak side of the field,” Sargent said about his rushing touchdown. “I saw the cutback lane, the defense overflowed, and I just had to make one guy miss.”

Young had 18 carries for 83 yards and 1 touchdown.

Throughout the season, he has been a strong force coming in late for the running back group. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry during the regular season, in just behind Sargent for the team lead.

“Both our backs ran really well [against Nebraska],” Ferentz said. “I thought Toren ran really hard. He always does. A lot of energy.”

All three of Iowa’s running backs are sophomores, giving the team a lot of experience and maturity heading into 2019.