Commentary: Bullock shows Hawkeyes can always find a running back


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CHICAGO — Even Kirk Ferentz admitted he “didn’t know what to expect” out of Damon Bullock.

And if Bullock’s own head coach felt that way leading up to Iowa’s escape from Soldier Field on Sept. 1, you could forgive people outside the program for having doubts.

Bullock, essentially, was the last man standing at running back. His 10 career carries for 20 yards didn’t comfort fans and observers. They had so little faith in the sophomore that his presence on the field could only be explained by a curse.

Thirty carries, 176 total yards, and a game-winning touchdown run later, we should all have learned our lesson. Let Bullock himself explain.

“We always knew we could run the ball, no matter who it is in the backfield,” he said. “We’ve got a great offensive line, a great coaching staff. It doesn’t matter who’s in the game — we can run the ball.”

Bullock played an outstanding game on Saturday. He handled a punishing workload and carried an otherwise struggling offense on his shoulders. But it seems he’s right: it might not matter much who is in the backfield for Iowa.

The Hawkeyes have had some hard-to-explain bad luck at running back. They’ve lost a lot of productive players to injuries, transfers, suspensions, and “personal reasons.” But before they vanished from the program, all those backs had first popped up as replacements for other departed runners.

Jewel Hampton tears an ACL in 2009, and Brandon Wegher and Adam Robinson emerge. They leave by the end of the next season, and Marcus Coker is suddenly an impressive workhorse. He transfers, and almost all his backups from last season vanish from the picture?

That leaves Bullock. And, to everyone’s great surprise, he can play, too.

The Mansfield, Texas, native was never breathtaking against Northern Iowa. He didn’t plow through, spin around, or hurdle over any tacklers. He just waited patiently for a hole to open, planted and cut through it, and ran until somebody tackled him. It was a steady performance.

And maybe that’s all Iowa needs out of its running backs. Because while the team’s offensive line struggled to protect quarterback James Vandenberg, it opened some big lanes for Bullock in the running game. Especially on his 23-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter that won the game for the Hawkeyes.

Iowa trailed by 5 points with fewer than three minutes left, needing 9 yards to keep the team’s hopes alive. Despite having a senior quarterback, and after all the hand-wringing over the team’s running-back situation, the Hawkeyes did the only thing that had worked all day. They handed the ball to Bullock.

He turned the corner and saw that crushing blocks from linemen Matt Tobin and Brandon Scherff and tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz had cleared the way to the end zone.

Bullock knew what to do.

“Sprint,” he said. “Run as fast as you can. We needed a touchdown really bad, so when I saw daylight, I had to get there.”

Sounds pretty simple. And, for Hawkeye running backs, maybe it is.

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