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September 20, 2013

Inside the numbers

Saying Mark Weisman has been a workhorse for the Iowa offense this year is an understatement. No other running back in the Football Bowl Subdivision has been asked to shoulder a larger workload so far.

Weisman's 85 carries are the most in the FBS. Boston College's Andre Williams' 75 rushes are the second most.

I'll try to put in perspective how much the Hawkeyes have asked of Weisman and try to examine what it means for him and Iowa over the course of the season. Most importantly, is this workload sustainable?

First, let's look at Iowa's 27-21 win at Iowa State from last Saturday:

-As a team, the Hawkeyes ran for 218 yards, but needed 60 attempts, tied for the most ever under Kirk Ferentz. They did the same two other times, going for a slightly less efficient 214 yards in a 39-7 win over Kent State on Sept. 4, 2004, and for 283 yards (4.7 yards per carry) in a 59-16 victory over Northwestern on Nov. 10, 2001. (This all just a week after 58 carries against Missouri State tied for the third-most carries in the Ferentz era.



-Weisman racked up 145 yards himself on 35 carries, the most carries for an Iowa player since Marcus Coker totaled 140 on 35 carries in the triple-overtime loss at Iowa State on Sept. 10, 2011. The 35 rushes are tied for the fourth most by a Hawkeye under Ferentz. Albert Young ran 38 times against Northwestern in 2005 and also had a 36-carry game that year, while Fred Russell ran 36 times during a 2003 game.



-Weisman's 35 carries versus Iowa State are tied with Washington's Bishop Sankey and BC's Williams for the second-highest single-game total in the FBS this year. New Mexico's Kasey Carrier's 41 carries against UTEP on Sept. 7 lead the way.

And now looking more broadly at the season:

-Weisman, who also carried the ball 30 times against Missouri State in the previous week's matchup, is one of two FBS players with two 30-plus-carry games already this year. BYU's Jamaal Williams has recorded games with 33 and 30 carries, respectively.

-While Weisman has ran 30-plus times in two games already, only one other Big Ten player - Ohio State's Jordan Hall - has done it even once. Hall ran for 168 yards on 30 carries against Cal last week. Hall's 64 carries on the year are also the second most in the Big Ten behind Weisman.

-Weisman carries have accounted for 85 of Iowa's 248 plays thus far, or 34.3 percent.

-Hall's carries have accounted for 28.4 percent of Ohio State's plays.

-Weisman's rushes accounted for 20.1 percent of Iowa's plays last year.

-When Shonn Greene accounted for 36.8 percent of Iowa's plays in his Doak Walker-winning 2008 season.

How does Weisman's potential workload over the course of the season stack up with other Iowa backs?



Here you see the highest single-season carry totals for players under Ferentz. Amazingly, Weisman already ranks 25th on the list after only three games.

-Multiplying Weisman's 85 carries by four to get a 12-game total, he is on pace for 340 carries, which would far and away be the most by a player under Ferentz, as you can see above. Those numbers include bowl games.

However, we would assume this three-game window is not completely indicative of what Weisman's workload will be over the course of the year. Even if we estimate rather conservatively - say he averages 20 carries over the next nine games - Weisman will finish with 265 carries - the fourth-highest total under Ferentz.

Iowa's all-time single-season record for carries is 316 by Sedrick Shaw in 1995.

Analysis

Let's flip the previous assumption on its head. Let's say Iowa continues to shoulder Weisman with a workload of the same level and he does carry the ball 340 times during the regular season.



(Note: Stats above display regular-season totals since 1999)

Only 10 FBS players since 1999 have carried the ball at least 340 times in a regular season of 12 games or fewer, including LaDainian Tomlinson, Ray Rice and Matt Forte. Those are obviously some pretty special talents. It's clear that backs capable of this feat are quite rare. No disrespect to Weisman, but we're not ready to put him in the same neighborhood with that company yet.

Giving Weisman this many carries is a big gamble. Is that a risk the Iowa coaching staff really wants to take - especially considering their bad luck with running backs over the years? Ferentz has time and time again stated there's not much to the running attrition, and certainly no "curse." Running backs get hurt - that's a fact of football. But it's hard to believe it's not something lurking in the back of Ferentz's mind at least every now and then. And if he's given Weisman this many carries thus far, that could speak to his lack of trust in his other backs.

Another worrisome factor is the competition these 30-carry games have come against: FCS Missouri State and less-than-mediocre Iowa State. Sure, Weisman is the owner of a shiny 5.0 yards-per-carry average right now, but will he be able to sustain that during Big Ten season when Iowa's offensive line isn't ability to physically dominate virtually every play?

There's plenty reason to calm the worries, however.

We have heard from Ferentz himself about how great of shape Weisman is in. And even if you take those words with a grain of salt - which might be smart - the bigger endorsement of Weisman's conditioning is Ferentz choosing to give Weisman all these carries. He, maybe more than even Weisman himself, probably has a very good idea of what his running back is capable of.

Is he pushing Weisman to his limits? Maybe. But it's unlikely Ferentz is asking Weisman to do anything that will cause him to spontaneously break down.

Also, with Jake Rudock the owner of just three career starts, it's fair to guess that this may have been part of the plan all along. Let Rudock get acclimated and more comfortable in the season's first few games. Don't ask him to go win you them. Instead, rely on Weisman - who has already been through the rigors of a full season - while Rudock gets settled in. This backfires if Rudock's progress hits a wall, but the general consensus suggests he's done a fine job thus far.

Damon Bullock hasn't exactly been a slouch either. Perhaps Iowa will revert to a more even distribution of carries. Bullock and Weisman's respective running styles complement each other well, something I especially noticed toward the end of the Iowa State game. After defending so many physically reckless runs by Weisman, the Iowa State defense was much more vulnerable to Bullock's explosiveness - the so-called "thunder and lightning" attack.

All this said, Iowa's running situation appears to be in no trouble Saturday against a Western Michigan defense that is allowing opponents an average of 245.0 yards per game, the 11th most in the FBS. The best-case scenario would obviously be for Iowa to build a big lead (the spread is hovering around 16 1/2-19 points in favor of Iowa), with Weisman getting most of his work in the first half. This would allow Bullock and Iowa's lesser-tenured backs to gain more experience, while simultaneously allowing Weisman some rest.

What Weisman has done thus far has been impressive. But getting him a bit of a breather this week would likely serve both Iowa and its workhorse well in the long run.



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