The Hawkeyes headed into the 2018 season feeling like they would have a lot of production from their three running backs in Ivory Kelly-Martin, Toren Young, and Mekhi Sargent. The reality turned out that it was a lot harder to replace former Iowa running back Akrum Wadley’s production despite having three options.
Kelly-Martin headed into the season as the starter and showed some burst through the first game against Northern Illinois. There were three runs that would have gone for 30 or more yards, but they were called back due to penalty. It was a rough year for Kelly-Martin as he struggled with multiple injuries that he sustained throughout the year and he really never got it together.
At the beginning of the season, he looked to be the most complete back on the roster. He had speed, burst, could catch, and showed that agility that no other back on the roster possessed. He’ll enter a critical portion of his career this spring when he’ll be fully healthy. Kelly-Martin will have to prove that he can still be “the guy” because I don’t think we’ll see much of the three running back rotation next season after what we saw this year. Kelly-Martin finished with 358 yards on 92 carries (3.7 yards per carry) and two rushing touchdowns.
Iowa recorded more than 100 rushing yards in every game except Northwestern (64) and they also recorded more than three rushing touchdowns in four games this season. The highest point of the season was in the last two games when it felt like Iowa controlled the line of scrimmage.
The Hawks struggled to have explosive plays in the running game throughout the season. They recorded a 10+ yard run in every game but couldn’t break any runs of more than 40 yards. The longest carry of the season was Young’s first carry of the season against Northern Illinois (40). The Hawkeyes wouldn’t have another 30+ yard run until Sargent had a 32-yard run against Nebraska.
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Iowa ran for 203 yards on 37 carries against Illinois and punched in four touchdowns in a dominant 63-0 win. Sargent ran for 124 yards on 17 carries. It was the first 100+ yard performance by an Iowa running back in the 2018 season. Young also ran for 70 yards and two touchdowns.
The best performance of the season came against Nebraska. That’s when Sargent emerged himself as a true number one guy for the Hawkeyes heading into the Outback Bowl and into next season. Sargent exploded for career-high 174 yards and a career-high 26 carries. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry and punched in a touchdown to go along with the performance.
It’s also worth pointing out Iowa’s performance against Maryland because the Hawkeyes didn’t have any rushing momentum heading into that game. The 30+ mile per hour winds would throw off any quarterback and the Hawks came out and established the run game early. It wasn’t a dominant performance by any means. They ran the ball 51 times for a total of 223 yards (4.3 yards per carry), but they showed some resiliency.
As I mentioned above, Iowa ran the ball for over 100 yards a game. With that being said, the Hawkeyes never looked like they dominated the run-blocking. Iowa finished the season among the best in the Big Ten when it came to pass protection, but run blocking was a different story.
The biggest disappointment of the season was the Northwestern game. On 22 carries, the Hawkeyes only recorded 64 yards and they couldn’t move the ball against the Wildcats. It didn’t help that quarterback Nate Stanley was hurt, but the running backs failed to help alleviate the pressure off of Stanley.
The Hawkeyes could consistently get 3-4 yards a carry, but it felt like the running backs couldn’t break that next level like former Iowa running backs have been known to do. Jordan Canzeri, Wadley, Adam Robinson, Shonn Greene and LeShun Daniels among others were all guys who had big-play potential. Not that this group doesn’t, but they are a young group who are still learning.
It’s amazing that Sargent ended up averaging 4.9 yards a carry on the season. For a while, it felt as if whenever he was in, the run-blocking would shut down and they would tackle Sargent in the backfield and not give him a chance to break one. Kelly-Martin, Young, Sargent are all sophomores this season, so it’s fair to expect a big leap forward next season.
The Hawkeyes just didn’t have any consistency when it came to the running game. Iowa had five games this season where they didn’t record a rushing touchdown. But they recorded 2+ rushing touchdowns in six games. They only recorded one rushing touchdown once.
The schedule ramps up for Iowa next year, so they’ll need to find a way to get some explosion in the running game. In a five-game stretch, the Hawkeye s will play @Michigan, Penn State, Purdue, @Northwestern, and @Wisconsin. The good news is that Iowa doesn’t lose anyone in the room and they add a solid prospect in Tyler Goodson.
Goodson has been compared to Wadley due to his great pass-catching ability and his ability to make people miss. That will be a welcome sight to the room and if he can get the playbook down and show-out in summer practice, you never know.
Iowa running backs will need to have better patience as a group next season. When the ball is snapped, it looked like they just ran into a pile of bodies and that would be the end of the play. It’s hard to break that next level when you have to avoid 10+ guys at the line of scrimmage.
Running back coach Derrick Foster will also have redshirt freshmen running backs Henry Geil and Samson Evans to throw into the mix if they are ready.
Sargent should be the day-one starter coming into next season as he showed a great amount of growth throughout the season. Sargent displayed his ability to truck opponents, catch the ball, pass-protect, and a much-improved cutback ability.
Iowa needs to find a guy that can break out for constant double-digit yard runs instead of frequently gaining three or four yards. In order to keep defenses honest, there has to be explosion in the run game. Sargent looks to be that guy based on the last few games of his sophomore season. There should be a lot of excitement for a group that returns all of its core faces and adds some new ones.