Opinion | Iowa football might have found its offensive identity Saturday night

The Hawkeyes’ rushing attack gained 168 yards and scored a touchdown against a Rutgers Scarlet Knight run defense that ranked second in the country before kickoff.


Ayrton Breckenridge

Iowa running back Kaleb Johnson carries the ball during a football game between Iowa and Rutgers at SHI Stadium in Piscataway, N.J. on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. The Hawkeyes defeated the Scarlet Knights 27-10.

Austin Hanson, Pregame Editor

PISCATAWAY, N.J., — Saturday’s Iowa-Rutgers game didn’t go as many projected it to. Initially billed as an Australian “Puntapalooza,” the contest featured fewer than 10 punts between the Hawkeyes’ Tory Taylor and the Scarlet Knights’ Adam Korsak — who both hail from Melbourne, Australia.

Taylor punted five times for 213 yards and downed four kicks inside the 20-yard line. Korsak’s four boots netted 168 yards. He downed two of his punts inside the 20.

Before the game, the over/under dropped as low as 33.5. Iowa and Rutgers scored a combined 37 points in what amounted to a 27-10 Hawkeye victory. Prior to Saturday, the under had hit in each of the Hawkeyes’ first three matchups.

The most shocking development, however, was that Iowa scored an offensive touchdown against a Scarlet Knight defense that ranked 10th in the nation before kickoff. For an offense that didn’t score a touchdown in Weeks 1 and 2, that’s quite an achievement.

The key to the Hawkeyes’ success on offense Saturday was the run game. Iowa gained 129 yards on 38 attempts —about 3.4 yards per carry — against a Rutgers rush defense that was ranked second in the country.

Before Saturday’s game, the Scarlet Knights were only giving up about 33 yards per game on the ground. Rutgers allowed just over one yard per rush in its first three contests of the 2022 season.

Over the last two games, it’s almost felt as if the Hawkeyes have found their identity again on offense. Throughout Kirk Ferentz’s 24-year head coaching career at Iowa, his teams have always had run-first offenses.

“Every step right now, for us, is important,” Ferentz said of the Hawkeyes’ improvements on the ground postgame. “It’s one of our team goals. It’s pretty simple during the week, you want to win the game that’s in front of you and improve.”

Through their first two games of the year, the Hawkeyes gained 115 yards on the ground. Against Nevada and Rutgers, Iowa has picked up 297 yards and three touchdowns rushing.

True freshman running back Kaleb Johnson is responsible for 167 of those yards and two of the touchdowns. He picked up 103 yards and two TDs against Nevada and gained 64 yards versus Rutgers.

Sophomore Leshon Williams scored Iowa’s lone offensive touchdown Saturday. He’s racked up 170 yards and two TDs this season.

Sophomore Gavin Williams, who was the No. 1 running back on Iowa’s preseason depth charts, has gained 84 yards this season. He missed the Hawkeyes’ season-opener against South Dakota State with a reported ankle injury and has played limited snaps since then.

Initially, it seemed like the Hawkeyes’ increased production on the ground was a fluke. Nevada ranked outside the top 50 in the country in total defense when the two teams played.

The performance Iowa’s running backs put on Saturday night seems to have effectively validated the Hawkeyes’ Week 3 showing — given the Hawkeyes put up 129 yards against the No. 2 rush defense in the country than they did against the Wolf Pack.

Iowa finding an offensive identity might not sound like a big deal, but it could be the difference between a Big Ten West Division title for the Hawkeyes and a sub-.500 record.

Before Iowa played its Week 3 and 4 games, there wasn’t one thing any reporter, fan, or casual observer could confidently say the Hawkeyes’ offense was good at. Now, it’s obvious that Iowa’s strength is in the run game.

Finding success in one minute area was the first step Iowa needed to take to repair its offense. At the beginning of the season, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz didn’t seem to know what his group is good at. Hopefully, he can see his team can run the ball efficiently. Now, he should have a few plays or schemes he knows he can find success with or fall back on when things go awry.

The Hawkeyes don’t need to be world-beaters on offense to win the Big Ten West. As good as its defense is, Iowa probably won’t have to score more than 21 points to beat most teams in its division.

Through four games, the Hawkeyes have surrendered just under six points per game, forced 11 turnovers, and given up a little over 236 yards a contest.

The Hawkeyes scored 13 points on offense Saturday night. The total isn’t very impressive, but Iowa would be 4-0 right now had its offense scored that many points in all of its games. Iowa hasn’t given up more than 10 points to a single opponent yet this year.

Iowa certainly doesn’t have the firepower to beat the likes of Ohio State and Michigan. The Hawkeyes will probably still lose to those teams this year. But Iowa might’ve proven it has just enough in the tank to beat the likes of Minnesota, Purdue, Northwestern, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.

The Golden Gophers, Boilermakers, and Badgers have scored a lot more points than the Hawkeyes this season. But none of those teams have played a defense as highly ranked as Iowa’s.

If the Hawkeyes score 13 points on offense against each of those squads and get a score or great field position once or twice from their defense and special teams, it’s reasonable to think Iowa could run the table in the West.

It’s not implausible to believe the Hawkeyes’ defense could score once per game either. Iowa’s defense scored 12 points against the Scarlet Knights via a Cooper DeJean pick six and a Kaevon Merriweather fumble recovery.

Two weeks ago, the Hawkeyes didn’t even seem likely to make a bowl game. Now, Iowa looks to be in the thick of another tight divisional race with the right to go to the 2022 Big Ten Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on the line.