Football: Iowa’s running backs benefit from Bulaga’s blocking

Danny Daly

All week long, coach Pat Fitzgerald stressed the similarities his team shares with Iowa – the parallels between what he and coach Kirk Ferentz say in press conferences, how both squads have overcome injuries, their struggles to put together 60 minutes of solid football, and so on.

The key difference has been the Hawkeyes (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) have stepped up at opportune times, whereas the Wildcats (5-4, 2-3) have let some games slip through their fingers. One possible reason for the discrepancy in the teams’ records: the play of their offensive lines.

NU’s line woes have been well-documented, and the running game has struggled as a result. Meanwhile, Iowa’s backfield has been just as hobbled as NU’s. The Hawkeyes lost their top two rushers, redshirt freshman Adam Robinson and preseason projected starter Jewel Hampton, to season-ending injuries.

But no matter who has carried the ball for the Hawkeyes, the running game has produced.”It’s probably going to be one of the best offensive lines we face this year,” sophomore defensive end Vince Browne said. “It’s a great situation for any one of those running backs.”

Browne will line up against junior left tackle Bryan Bulaga, the anchor of the Iowa line, on Saturday. Bulaga was selected for the all-conference second team by Big Ten coaches after last season.

“He’s one of the best tackles in the country for a reason,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s strong, he’s got good feet. They do a nice job with their offensive line, and he’s a hell of a football player.”

Linemen like Bulaga, a likely future first-day pick in the NFL Draft, are making the transition to the spotlight easier for tailback Brandon Wegher. The true freshman started the first game of his career against Indiana last week and gained 118 yards on 25 carries, including three touchdowns.

He also racked up more than 100 yards against Iowa State in his first collegiate contest earlier this season.

A few weeks ago, the Cats might not have expected Wegher to be the featured running back for the Hawkeyes. Still, that doesn’t mean they are overlooking him.

“From what I’ve seen, he’s pretty good,” junior linebacker Quentin Davie said. “I know they used him as a goal line guy – he had some nice runs, jumping over some guys. He hits the hole, they have a nice little scheme and they have a great offensive line.”

VAUGHN GETS RID OF INJURY BUG

After sophomore cornerback Jordan Mabin was injured in the second half of last week’s loss to Penn State, junior Justan Vaughn trotted out to take his place. For a player who’s rarely been healthy, the feeling couldn’t have been better.

“It’s a great thing – it feels like I’m back at home,” Vaughn said. “I’m just trying to take advantage of every opportunity that I get.”

Vaughn won a starting spot before last season and promptly tore his labrum. The timing couldn’t have been worse – he tried to play through the injury, but the pain became excruciating. He was sidelined for good against Duke, the second game of the year.

The rehabilitation process for his shoulder took months, but it was a valuable experience for Vaughn.

“It made me put things in perspective,” he said. “I had to make sure I just stayed as positive as I could and worked my shoulder as hard as I could so when I did get back, I could be as healthy as possible.”

The second game proved to be a curse again this season. Vaughn finally cracked the starting lineup, but he tweaked his leg and missed the next six weeks.

With Vaughn’s return, the secondary is even more crowded than before. For now, Vaughn is just excited he has a chance to compete for playing time.

“The fact that I’m out here now is just that much better,” Vaughn said. “I’m just hoping that I can stay healthy and take care of my business.”

RECORD-SETTING AGAINST THE RUN

Just one year after setting the school record for rushing defense, NU is on pace to break the record for the second consecutive season.

The Cats have given up 122.9 yards per game on the ground through the first nine games of 2009. That’s almost four yards better than last year’s mark.

The fact that NU hasn’t usually been at full strength would make the achievement even more impressive. Senior defensive linemen Corey Wootton and Adam Hahn have battled injuries for most of the season, but the backups have held the defense together.

“We’ve got great depth,” Browne said. “Guys have been able to step up and carry the flag.”[email protected]