Iowa's running game starting to turn corner

Though Iowa has made a splash this season with a no-huddle look, the Hawkeyes are at their core a team that loves to grind it out on offense.

They went back to the ground against Indiana in a 45-24 win last week, piling up 456 yards with a nice balance — 253 through the air and 203 on the ground.

The Hawkeyes (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) will likely try to establish the running game again when they face struggling Minnesota (1-6, 0-3) on Saturday. Only the Hoosiers are allowing more yards on the ground among Big Ten teams than the Golden Gophers, who've given up just under 200 a game.

"We believe you have to try to be balanced," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It's not so much about the numbers you have, but being able to do what you want."

Overshadowed by the performance by wide receiver Marvin McNutt, who caught touchdown passes of 80, 29 and 24 yards to set the school record for career TD receptions, was another encouraging outing from sophomore running back Marcus Coker.

Coker, who looked tentative earlier this season while dealing with a shoulder injury, had perhaps his best game of the year against the Hoosiers. He got the ball on Iowa's first five snaps, and wound up with 139 yards on 23 carries, his second straight game with at least 120 yards and two TDs.

Coker has 717 yards rushing and now ranks fifth in the Big Ten with 102.4 yards per game. He's been better in league play, averaging 5.3 yards a carry the past three weeks.

"I was thinking too much and second-guessing holes, and you can't do that as a running back," Coker said. "Just a couple weeks ago when I talked to coach Ferentz, he said I just I had go out there and stop thinking so much, to stop overanalyzing everything and just go out there and play football and have fun."

Iowa also got some big runs from an unlikely source — quarterback James Vandenberg.

Vandenberg, who's about as close to the true definition of a pocket passer as can be, kept the game's first drive going with a 24-yard run on third down. He then ran for six yards on 3rd-down-and-4, setting up Coker's first touchdown.

Vandenberg will likely never be considered a dual-threat quarterback, and his league-leading 16 touchdowns against just four interceptions suggests he won't have to be. But the improvisational plays show Vandenberg's increased comfort level with the playbook.

"I wouldn't considered myself a running quarterback by any stretch. But it's a guy the defense doesn't really account for," Vandenberg said. "If I can pick up a first down or two with my feet, that just provides a different dimension."

Though the Hawkeyes have been better running the football recent weeks, they're certainly not as stout as they've been in years past.

Iowa still ranks just 10th in the league in rushing offense as it's relied heavily on Vandenberg, McNutt and fellow receivers Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley, and Northwestern, Indiana and Minnesota combine to anchor the bottom of the Big Ten in run defense.

Still, the weather's about to turn cold in the Midwest, and it's encouraging for Iowa to start moving the ball on the ground with the likes of Michigan State, Michigan and Nebraska around the corner.

"Our offensive line has done a really good job of controlling the tempo up front these last two weeks, and we've gotten Coker going early," Vandenberg said. "He's a fullback to handle once he gets that head of steam going."