Iowa football running back Kaleb Johnson bursts onto scene in Hawkeyes’ 27-0 win over Nevada

The true freshman rushed for two touchdowns and 103 yards Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.


Jerod Ringwald

Iowa running back Kaleb Johnson rushes the ball during a football game between Iowa and Nevada at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2022. Johnson scored a touchdown on the play. The Hawkeyes defeated the Wolfpack, 27-0.

Isaac Goffin, Sports Reporter

Before Iowa football’s Week 3 contest against Nevada, true freshman running back Kaleb Johnson thought he wouldn’t be a big factor in the Hawkeyes’ offense this early in his collegiate career.

He proved himself wrong by recording two rushing touchdowns and 103 yards on seven attempts in Iowa’s 27-0 win over Nevada Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium.

“I’ve been waiting for this since I got here,” Johnson said postgame.

Johnson’s first collegiate touchdown came on an inside rush he bounced out to the right sideline. Once the Ohioan hit the boundary, he cruised to the end zone for a 40-yard touchdown with 4:36 left in the first quarter.

“I just saw my blocker,” Johnson said. “Read him, and I really thought I was going to go down, but I just told my mind to stay up.”

Then, after three lightning delays that spanned almost four hours, Johnson found the end zone again with under nine minutes remaining in the contest. Like his first touchdown, Johnson broke an inside zone run to the outside. But instead of bouncing out to the opponent’s side of the field, he streaked down Iowa’s sideline for a 55-yard touchdown.

Johnson and Iowa’s offense ranked last in the 131-team FBS before Saturday’s contest. The Hawkeyes were averaging 158 offensive yards and seven points per game. The only touchdown the Hawkeyes had scored was courtesy of a nine-yard scamper from sophomore running back Leshon Williams during Iowa’s Week 2 loss to Iowa State.

Williams, who led the team in rushing before Johnson exploded onto the scene Saturday, had totaled 106 yards on 38 rushes in two games. Iowa’s run offense accumulated 57.5 rushing yards per contest with Williams at the helm, which ranked 127th in the country.

Williams did not play against Nevada on Saturday. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said Williams missed the contest because his father had died earlier in the week. Williams’ family held a funeral service for his father on Saturday.

Sophomore Gavin Williams was Iowa’s top running back on the preseason depth charts. He missed Week 1 with a reported ankle injury and recorded two rushes for 10 yards against Iowa State in Week 2.

Gavin Williams was Iowa’s top option at running against the Wolf Pack, taking a team-high 16 carries for 57 yards. His longest run of the day was 12 yards. Overall, the Hawkeyes recorded 162 yards on the ground against the Wolf Pack.

Johnson failed to make a noticeable impact in his first two collegiate games. The information technology major gained zero yards on three rushes in the season-opener. He put up 13 yards on four attempts in Week 2 — though one of his rushes was for eight yards.

“First game, I started stiff,” Johnson said. “I was kind of nervous and scared, a little bit excited because it was my first time. Second game, got in. Got a first down, it was cool. Then, the third game is when I just turned it on and just went up from there. So, it was just really me getting used to the environment, getting used to the players, and getting used to the other teams that we play.”

It is unclear how Iowa will split its carries out of the backfield next week against Rutgers at SHI Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey, if Leshon Williams, Gavin Williams, and Johnson are all available.

Senior quarterback Spencer Petras said he knew that Johnson’s Week 3 performance was coming. The fifth-year senior recalled Johnson running through tackles when the Hawkeyes were practicing in helmets and shoulder pads only.

“I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of really good stuff on tape for him, and probably some stuff he should clean up,” Petras said. “The sky’s the limit for him.”

Johnson’s physicality isn’t the only thing that’s set him up for success. Ferentz said Johnson’s demeanor and energy also helps set him apart.

“It was good to see him run with confidence tonight, and he got a little bit of daylight and knew what to do with that, that’s for sure,” Ferentz said. “Coincidentally, there’s a run he made in camp that was very similar to a couple that he made tonight. That was good to see that transfer over to a game field. Hopefully that will be good for his confidence. It’s going to help us. The more the merrier from that standpoint.”