Hawkeye ground game struggles


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The Iowa football team needed 4 yards.

After quarterback James Vandenberg completed a short pass to tight end Zach Derby, the Hawkeyes faced second-and-4 from their own 41. More than seven minutes remained in the game — enough time for the offense to play at a comfortable pace, but not enough that Iowa, trailing 13-3, could afford to end the possession without scoring.

Rather than give 6-0, 230-pound running back Marcus Coker a chance to plow forward for the first down, the Hawkeyes attempted two passes against college football's sixth-best pass defense.

The first was incomplete.

The second was intercepted.

The playcalling in that crucial moment of Iowa's loss to Penn State on Oct. 8 seemed to show a lack of confidence in the Hawkeye running game.

The Hawkeyes rank 10th in the Big Ten — and 78th nationally — with 129 rushing yards per game. Their 3.7 yards per carry are 82nd-best in the country. And while Vandenberg and his wide receivers had success early in the year, the Nittany Lions' secondary held them in check. Iowa couldn't respond with a successful running attack — running back Marcus Coker had 74 yards on 18 carries — and the result was Iowa's lowest point total since 2005.

Coker, who is 54th in the NCAA in rushing yards with 454, put the blame squarely on himself.

"I'm just not hitting holes like I need to be and not making the plays I need to make," the sophomore said. "If everybody else is doing his job and I'm not, then you can't blame somebody who's doing his job. I look at it as I could've hit something harder. I could've broken another tackle."

Coker has looked tentative carrying the ball at times, running upright rather than lowering his shoulder and taking advantage of his size. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said earlier in the season that he missed significant time in fall camp due to injury.

But right guard Adam Gettis said the offensive line for blame.

"We'll open up some bigger holes for him," he said. "I think we can do better as an O-line. The blocking schemes are great, and we've just got to make it happen up front."

It hasn't been all bad for the Hawkeyes. Coker ran for more than 100 yards and scored two touchdowns against both Iowa State and Louisiana-Monroe. Against Penn State, he had one 16-yard carry in which he met a defender head-on and ran right over him.

But the running game wasn't good enough to beat Penn State, and it wouldn't have been against Pittsburgh if Vandenberg hadn't exploded in the fourth quarter. It might have a chance to work out some of its rushing issues against Northwestern on Oct. 15. The Wildcats have the Big Ten's second-worst rush defense.

But Coker said he isn't sure what exactly he needs to change.

"I'm still working on figuring that out," he said. "Just keep running hard in practice. I feel like I've been practicing hard and practicing well, I just want to see it translate on the field."

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