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Stopping Connor priority No. 1 for Iowa

BY JACOB SHEYKO | SEPTEMBER 19, 2014 5:00 AM

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Iowa’s matchup with Pittsburgh on Saturday should be a heavyweight matchup. Old-school football, bruising. Whatever cliché label is put on it, its pits one of the nation’s best running defenses — Iowa — against one of the most potent rushing offenses in the nation.

It’s the type of offense — not to the extent of what Pittsburgh’s done so far, though — that Iowa has been used to in past seasons. Only this time, they’re on the receiving end of the running game instead of delivering the blows.

Football games are often won in the trenches, as overused as that statement may be. This should be the case more than any week this season for Iowa.

“We need to just relax,” said Iowa middle linebacker Quinton Alston on Tuesday. “Go downhill; hit [James Conner] before he starts to get running. Have a race to the football. Who’s hitting him first? Obviously, I want to be the first.”

As Alston said, Pittsburgh running back James Conner is at the center of the Panthers’ rushing attack. He’s averaging 181 yards per game, fourth in the nation. His 8 rushing touchdowns lead the nation.

Conner is not alone though; the Pittsburgh offense as a whole averages 344 rushing yards per game — fifth in the nation, and its 6.45 yards per carry is 11th best in the country.

Those numbers shouldn’t be too surprising for anyone with knowledge of Pittsburgh’s head coach Paul Chryst, who for six years made his name as Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator. Chryst’s knowledge in the rushing attack has transferred to his tenure at Pittsburgh.

The Hawkeyes won’t be helpless. Instead, they counter Pittsburgh’s bruiser mentality with a frontline well known for stopping the run, one that has allowed just 65.7 rushing yards per game this season. They haven’t allowed a rushing touchdown all season, one of eight teams in the nation to do so.

Granted, Iowa hasn’t faced a back like Conner all season. He’s more likely to be mistaken for linebacker than someone getting the ball handed off to him.

As it is with most big backs, several Iowa players shared the same viewpoint that the key to bringing down the 6-2 250-pound sophomore is to gang-tackle him.

“It’s going to come down to everybody just playing their blocks on the defensive line, getting off blocks, and everyone getting to the ball,” defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat said. “If we do that, no matter how big the back is, he’ll eventually go down.”

The Hawks have seen plenty of big backs in their day, both from opponents and in practice against their own. When preparing for a big running back, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a 240-pound back of your own — Mark Weisman — to compete against.

“He’s a big back,” Carl Davis said. “He’s strong and powerful, he’s agile. We’ve seen some big backs before, like Melvin Gordon [6-1, 207 pounds] or Le’Veon Bell [6-2, 237 pounds], but he brings a whole different challenge.”

Iowa’s own running game has not looked like the Hawkeye teams of old. Weisman, the team’s leading rusher, has yet to eclipse 100 yards on the season.

What has looked like classic Hawkeye football has been their defense. So it’s no surprise that despite Pittsburgh presenting a real possibility of giving Iowa its second-straight loss, it’s still a game Iowa looks forward to.

“I look forward to playing against a good offensive line,” Davis said. “They put up a lot of rushing yards, they really get after guys up front. These are the types of games I like to play in.”


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