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Experience returns for Iowa offense eager to make things happen

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IOWA CITY — Seven times out of 12 last season, Iowa couldn’t top 309 yards of total offense.

In Big Ten play, the Hawkeyes averaged just 3.3 yards per rush and 180 passing yards per game. They threw just seven touchdown passes all season while posting an average of 310.4 yards of total offense, 114th of 120 teams in Division I FBS.

They were 111th in scoring, 101st in rushing and 99th in passing — but 112th in passing efficiency.

Fans howled that quarterback James Vandenberg, after a pretty solid junior season, regressed in his first year under new coordinator Greg Davis.

There were injuries to the running backs again — when isn’t that the case at Iowa? But, when healthy, Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock, a thunder-and-lightning duo, each showed he was capable of being a solid option.

Maybe things would have been different if not for the Penn State game on Oct. 20. Iowa gave no indication from the start that it would beat the Nittany Lions that night.

But when left tackle Brandon Scherff and right guard Andrew Donnal went down with season-ending injuries in the first quarter, the effect lasted well beyond that game.

Now they’re back, with Scherff in particular leading an offensive line group that has seven players with at least some starting experience.

“We’re going to be the most physical group on the field,” Scherff said.

Weisman rushed for 815 yards and eight touchdowns last season, while Bullock added another 513 yards and three scores. Jordan Canzeri is back from a knee injury, and freshman LeShun Daniels apparently will play.

Wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley (52 receptions, 571 yards) and tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz lead the pass catchers.

And it appeared late in fall camp that sophomore Jake Rudock would be the quarterback after winning a close race with junior college transfer Cody Sokol and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard.

Big plays were in short supply last year in Davis’ first season. Creating more is a primary goal.

“I think Greg is a lot more comfortable with our players now,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I think everybody is more comfortable with the terminology, all those types of things, and now what we have to do is design ... clearly we need to have enough big plays offensively. ... We have to do a better job there.”

Said Davis: “We have more speed (at wide receiver) than we did last year. At the same time, we’re not as far along experience-wise as we were (last year).”

Scherff, the 6-foot-5, 310-pound junior from Denison, Iowa, suffered a broken fibula and dislocated ankle during that fateful first quarter against Penn State.

Scherff said he felt a little hesitant during spring practice but no longer has any reservations.

“I’m stronger and faster than I was last year,” Scherff said. “(Recovering) has actually helped my upper body, because that’s all I could work on.”

Freshman All-American Austin Blythe has moved from starting guard to center, where he’ll replace All-Big Ten pick James Ferentz.

Fiedorowicz, 6-7 and 265, leads a group of tight ends the Hawkeyes really like.

There are opportunities at wide receiver, and Iowa may use Bullock and Canzeri more frequently as pass catchers.

Anything to make something happen offensively.

“Last year hurt,” Bullock said. “This team is focused. We’re going to make plays this year.”

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