IOWA CITY, Iowa – There are a ton of reasons why Iowa has blossomed into a potential Big Ten contender.
But the biggest one is the simplest one: Iowa is playing like Iowa again.
Iowa is back to running the ball, stopping the run and excelling on special teams. All three of those phases have been crucial for the resurgent Hawkeyes (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten), who've won four straight — equaling their total from all of 2012 — heading into Saturday's game against Michigan State (3-1, 0-0).
"I think we're making progress," coach Kirk Ferentz said. "In a perfect world, if you can run it and stop the run it's a good thing."
The Hawkeyes have always been at their best under Ferentz when they've had a so-called "bell cow," a back they can call on as often as needed. No one in the country has been more reliable than Mark Weisman.
The 236-pound junior leads the nation with 119 carries, and he's fourth with 615 yards.
It's not like the Hawkeyes or Weisman have had to be particularly creative in finding space. A healthy and physical offensive line has consistently opened big holes for Weisman between the tackles.
Weisman's straight-ahead style has proven to be a perfect fit for the Hawkeyes. He rushed for 147 yards in a 23-7 win over Minnesota last weekend, his third game with at least 145 yards this season.
Weisman's toughest challenge so far will come this week, as the Spartans rank second nationally in run defense.
"They're physical up front and great in the back," Weisman said of Michigan State. "They're a tough defense."
Iowa's dip over the past few seasons coincided with a decline in their defensive line play. It looks like the Hawkeyes have finally fixed their front four.
Iowa and Michigan are the only teams in the country that haven't allowed a rushing touchdown this season. The Hawkeyes are also first nationally with just one TD allowed from inside their 20-yard line and are just one of 13 teams letting up less than 3 yards a carry.
The line's improvement has allowed Iowa's talented trio of senior linebackers to make plays all season. James Morris was the latest to benefit, as he earned Big Ten defensive player of the week honors with eight tackles, a sack and an interception against Minnesota.
"If we can control the line of scrimmage, that takes 50 percent out of people's game, and then we can focus on pinning our ears back and getting sacks," defensive lineman Dominic Alvis said. "If we can take the running facet out of the game, there's not a whole lot left. That's huge."
Because Iowa plays such a patient and physical style, field position is crucial.
Thanks to increased depth and relative health, Iowa has been better on special teams too.
Opponents are averaging just 2.5 yards a punt return — though Ferentz remains concerned about the kickoff coverage team — and kicker Mike Meyer has hit all three of his field-goal tries from at least 40 yards.
Iowa's schedule gets much tougher in the second half of the season, so it's tough to say whether the Hawkeyes will be able to keep pushing opponents around like they have so far. But by going back to the formula that's suited it so well in the past, Iowa has put itself in position to contend for a division title.
"It's a product of all 11 guys working in the offseason and then, when we get on the field, just executing and playing hard," Morris said. "Those plays are going to come, and you don't know who it's going to be."
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