Iowa Hawkeyes running back Gavin Williams (25) carries the ball during a game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Nevada Wolf Pack at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa on Saturday, September 17, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
PISCATAWAY, NJ — The fact that the Iowa football team found some success on the field against Rutgers probably wouldn’t have come as a surprise to someone a few months ago.
But who would lead that charge would probably have caught a few people off guard a few months ago.
Gavin Williams started the season as the Hawkeyes’ No. 1 running back after averaging 4.7 yards per carry in 2021 as No. 2 behind Tyler Goodson.
But in the first game with Iowa’s top three running backs – Gavin Williams, Leshon Williams and Kaleb Johnson – all fully available, Leshon Williams and Johnson were the ones playing the lead roles.
Leshon Williams had a team-best 64 yards rushing while averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Johnson had 58 yards and was averaging 3.9 yards per carry.
Gavin Williams, meanwhile, had just 17 rushing yards on seven carries – a clip of 2.4 yards per carry. Four of his seven carries resulted in no gain or loss of yards.
What happened against Rutgers was a microcosm of what the first four games of 2022 looked like.
Gavin Williams has 84 yards and 3.4 yards per carry. Leshon Williams has 170 yards and 3.5 yards per carry. Johnson has 174 yards and 6.0 yards per carry.
Of course, these statistics are far from perfect. Gavin Williams didn’t play at all against South Dakota State and played sparingly against Iowa State. Leshon Williams missed the Nevada game. The bulk of Kaleb Johnson’s touches have come in the last two games.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz isn’t going to “read too much into it.”
“We talk about Gavin and Leshon like they’re seniors, and they’re not,” Ferentz said. “They are young players.”
Iowa also still has many question marks at other positions on its offense.
“Particularly on our offensive side, we try to learn more about the team with each rep,” Ferentz said.
This was especially the case on the offensive line. Four of the five first-team offensive linemen made their first career debuts in their respective positions in 2022, with Mason Richman being the exception at left tackle.
Some of Gavin Williams’ carries have come with little to no space created by the offensive line.
Three Rutgers players were on or in front of the line of scrimmage waiting for Gavin Williams on his first carry, but he managed to turn it into a zero-yard play.
In his second-quarter six-yard loss, a defender passed offensive tackle Connor Colby to salute Williams essentially as soon as he took over.
The offensive line certainly made progress against Rutgers, which helped as the Hawkeyes tied their season-high 129 rushing yards.
But some of Gavin Williams’ no-win scenarios against Rutgers – a team with previous wins in 2022 came against two FBS teams that didn’t go to a bowl last year and an FCS team that didn’t win a game since 2019 – is a reminder that there is still work to be done on the offensive line.
Another reminder was quarterback Spencer Petras’ three sacks on Saturday.
Continuous improvement will be particularly necessary as we approach a difficult month of October. Two of Iowa’s next three opponents are in the top four in the latest Associated Press poll.
The agility of Leshon Williams and Johnson made up for some of the shortcomings of a young offensive line, but it probably won’t be a reliable overall solution against No. 3 Ohio State or No. 4 Michigan.
The throbbing wounds keep nagging
Wide receiver Keagan Johnson was again unavailable in Iowa’s 27-10 win on Saturday. He only played one out of four matches, and that was for 15 snaps.
His nagging injury involves “soft tissue,” Ferentz said.
“There’s just no way to predict how it’s going to go,” Ferentz said.
Linebacker Jestin Jacobs returned after suffering an injury in Week 1, but had to leave the game. It’s unclear if he suffered a new injury or aggravated his existing one.
“I don’t think it’s good,” Ferentz said, although he will hear more about Jacobs’ prognosis at his press conference on Tuesday.
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