By Pete Ruden
When Iowa took on Northwestern in Evanston two years ago, it was a first for many things.
In addition to keeping the Hawkeyes’ perfect regular season intact, it was the day the legends of Akrum Wadley and James Daniels were born.
Given the star power he has now, it’s hard to remember when Wadley was a rarely used member of the backfield who had trouble holding onto the ball.
It’s also hard to remember when Daniels wasn’t a staple on what has consistently been one of the best offensive lines in the country.
But early in the 2015 season, that was the case.
Running back LeShun Daniels didn’t play in the game, and starter Jordan Canzeri went down early with an injury. That’s when third-string Wadley came to the rescue, running wild for 204 yards and 4 touchdowns, with 7.8 yards per carry en route to a 40-10 victory.
“That was the first day where I think he really understood we needed him because we were pretty much out of options at that point, and I think he got that, and he really played like a varsity player that day,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It was really a good performance, and boy, did we need it.”
Since then, Wadley has been an integral part of the offense. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season and has been Iowa’s most important playmaker on offense this year, whether it’s on the ground or through the air.
As an underclassman, he didn’t play much before the Northwestern game in 2015, but Wadley always knew what he was capable of.
“I already knew I was good for what I was made; I just had to prove it,” he said. “I worked really hard in the weeks prior to that. I hadn’t been dropping the ball, and that was the big deal, so I was really confident going in.”
Daniels has also played a prominent role on the offensive line since that eventful game.
As a mainstay, he played like a veteran in his first season as a starter in 2016, helping Wadley and his brother LeShun Daniels both run for more than 1,000 yards.
He was also part of the unit that won the Joe Moore Award last year, which is given to the best offensive-line group in the country.
After playing on special teams and sporadically on the line as a true freshman, Daniels thinks the game helped lift him up for the rest of the season.
“I feel like it did give me confidence,” he said. “I didn’t play much after that game in ’15, but it did give me confidence if I did have to go in there, I did feel confident that I would be able to do my job.”
The Hawkeyes will need more of the magic that took place in 2015 if they want to take the Wildcats down.
Maybe the Hawkeyes won’t need two guys to step up in two different positions, but they will need the firepower that surfaced two years ago.
An inconsistent offense has been a big reason Iowa has two losses on the year. While the rushing attack has been huge for Iowa in past games, it has been on-and-off this season.
With Wadley in the backfield and a relatively experienced line that includes Daniels, the running game should have been a lot better in some of the previous games.
Coming off of a bye week, however, Iowa has had the chance to address its insufficiencies.
“It’s something we try to do a good job of and pride ourselves on. We’re not where we want to be for a lot of reasons right now,” Ferentz said. “But I think we’ve done some good things. Certainly, the last game I thought we ran the ball better, looked a little bit more like what we’d hoped to look like. Hopefully, we made some strides over the last week, and hopefully, we’ll continue to do so this week.”