TAMPA, Fla. — One reason for Iowa’s strong offensive line play on the field is a bond that has developed off it.
“No one goes off and does their own thing when we’re away from the (football) complex,” sophomore center Austin Blythe said. “We all try to get together and hang out.
“That really translates to the football field, and how we play together.”
The offensive line was a M*A*S*H unit in 2012, when Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal were injured and lost for the season in the seventh game against Penn State. But that unit has been relatively healthy this season.
The same five guys have started every game heading into Wednesday’s contest with No. 14 LSU in the Outback Bowl — tackles Brandon Scherff and Brett Van Sloten; Blythe over the ball; and guards Conor Boffeli and Jordan Walsh.
They are one big reason — they average 300 pounds from tackle to tackle — Iowa’s offense has made a significant jump over last season.
The scoring average has increased from 19.3 points to 27.3. The total offense jumped from 310.4 yards to 389. And a unit that allowed 22 sacks last season surrendered just 12 this season, the fewest of any Big Ten Conference team.
“We definitely had a rough year last year when two guys went down against Penn State, and we weren’t able to get together and develop a good five- to seven-man rotation,” Van Sloten said. “But this year, we have.”
Donnal and Nolan MacMillan have also played significant minutes between the tackles, protecting quarterback Jake Rudock, opening holes for the running game, pass blocking and returning a tradition of strong line play back to Hawkeye football.
“We’ve been able to build a cohesive unit,” Van Sloten said. “These are the guys we hang out with on a daily basis. We spend a lot of time together. It’s fun playing next to those guys. It’s kind of surreal to think that this is the last game.
“The game is important, but it’s also the friendships you build along the way.”
Van Sloten, Boffeli and MacMillan are seniors, but next season’s line got a boost when Scherff, an all-Big Ten left tackle, said he’ll return for his senior season instead of entering the NFL Draft.
“That’s definitely big, getting a guy like that back anchoring the line,” Boffeli said. “You definitely want as many seniors as you can get, and you want to have a guy of that caliber coming back to lead those younger guys with Brett, myself and Nolan leaving.”
The fact that Scherff is a tackle makes his return to Iowa City even bigger.
“The offensive line is still not as deep as we’d like it to be,” offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. “Our offensive tackles are still not where we need to be there. We’re pretty solid inside. But tackles are hard. I don’t know that you can ever have enough of them. Scherff was a big recruit.”
Tight ends are also a major factor at the point of attack when it comes to blocking. C.J. Fiedorowicz is a senior, but experienced players Ray Hamilton and Jake Duzey are back.
“We’re probably as deep there as any place I’ve been at, in terms of guys that you can trust to go in there and make plays,” Davis said.
Players in Iowa’s current offensive line rotation mention guys like Boone Myers, a freshman from Webster City; Cole Croston, a redshirt freshman from Sergeant Bluff; and Sean Welsh, a freshman from Springboro, Ohio, as players to keep an eye on in the future.
“Hopefully we’ve helped them along the way,” Van Sloten said. “I know they’ll be great in the years to come. They’ll be well-coached. And they’ll look up to guys like Brandon, Andrew and Austin, who will do a great job of leading.”
Blythe, who replaced three-year starter James Ferentz at center this season after starting nine games at guard in 2012, was well-versed in the tradition of strong line play at Iowa when he arrived on campus. He respects that tradition, and knows those are big shoes to fill.
“But at the same time, I want to make the position my own,” Blythe said. “I want to be my own player. So I’ve got to make my own shoes to fill.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football