Purdue must try to stop undefeated Iowa’s potent run game

LeShun Daniels Jr. last week became the third Iowa running back to rush for at least 195 yards in a single game this season.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Minnesota knew exactly what Iowa wanted to do and the Gophers couldn’t stop it.

The Hawkeyes had the ball, a five-point lead and nearly six minutes to burn last Saturday. They ran the ball eight times, a stretch capped with a 51-yard touchdown run by LeShun Daniels Jr. that gave Iowa a 40-28 lead with 2:01 left.

Such an old-school mentality has led to the best start in history for the Hawkeyes (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten), who can clinch their first Big Ten West title with a win over Purdue (2-8, 1-5) this weekend.

"We take a lot of pride in being able to run the ball when they expect it. To be able to play physical like that and finish out the game … shows that we’re not going to lay down. We’re going to come after you," Daniels said.

Iowa has been remarkably balanced this year, rushing for 2,117 yards and throwing for 2,097 yards.

But it’s been the run game — highlighted by tremendous offensive line play — that has anchored the Iowa attack.

Center Austin Blythe and guards Jordan Walsh and Sean Welsh have put Iowa in position to run the ball up the middle in every game. Tackle Boone Myers has overcome earlier struggles with injuries to ably protect the backside of quarterback C.J. Beathard, and unheralded junior Cole Croston has been a revelation at left tackle.

"They’re all so football smart. They know the whole play, the whole scheme and what the defense can or will do," said senior running back Jordan Canzeri, who expects to be fully recovered from a sprained ankle by Saturday. "And then there’s just a lot of communication … and when they’re on the same page it’s easy. Because they’re all great athletes. They’re all tough guys."

The play of the line is also a major reason Iowa is the first team since LSU in 1997 to have three different runners with at least 195 yards in a single game, according to STATS.

Daniels was the latest Iowa back to reach that mark last weekend. The 225-pounder, finally 100 percent after an ankle sprain in mid-September, rushed 26 times against the Gophers with Akrum Wadley out and Canzeri working his way back.

Daniels should have more help this weekend. All four of Iowa’s backs, including third-down threat Derrick Mitchell Jr., should be available for the first time since September.

"The one thing I can say about that whole group, that’s been most impressive to me, is just the way they’ve picked each other up. So if somebody goes down, the next guy grabs the rope and does a great job. We’re really pleased with all of them," coach Kirk Ferentz said.

The line has had its injury issues as well. But Daniels credited offensive line coach and running game coordinator Brian Ferentz with making sure whoever is called upon to play is fully prepared to do so.

That preparation, combined with their tough and physical mindset, has helped the Hawkeyes beat everyone they’ve faced.

"It’s something that you can put your pride in. I respect that kind of play. To know that they know what you’re going to do, and it’s me against you and whoever comes out on top … I appreciate that," Welsh said.

An Iowa back could put up another crooked number on the ground against Purdue, which is allowing 209.6 rushing yards per game — toward the bottom of the FBS. Northwestern ran for 250 yards in last week’s 21-14 home victory over the Boilermakers, and Illinois rushed for 382 in a 48-14 rout at Purdue the previous week.

"It’s frustrating when you can execute so well for snippets of the game," sophomore quarterback David Blough said after the loss to the Wildcats. "But when you need it the most, we had a couple of three-and-outs back to back. It’s incredibly frustrating."

The Boilermakers have run for 89 or fewer yards in five of their last seven games.

Iowa has taken two straight and four of five meetings with Purdue, though its only loss in that stretch was 27-24 at home in 2012 on Paul Griggs’ 46-yard field goal on the final play. The Hawkeyes had won six consecutive meetings at Iowa City.