IOWA CITY — Close doesn’t cut it for Ivory Kelly-Martin.
The starter in Iowa’s three-player running back rotation figures it’s about time for the Hawkeyes to bust a big play or two in the run game.
"Each and every week, we’re so close," Kelly-Martin said. "We’re a defender away or one arm to the leg or a swipe to the leg from being able to break out. All of us, we’re close."
That’s the tough part for the three sophomores who have combined to average 154.5 rushing yards per game for the Hawkeyes as they work toward Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game against Big Ten West Division leader Northwestern at Kinnick Stadium.
"We see it in practice. We know what we’re capable of. It just has to carry over to a game," Kelly-Martin said. "It’s a matter of time. We all believe that."
Iowa needs growth in its ground game as the Hawkeyes move into the homestretch of their regular season schedule.
Through a 6-3 start, Iowa sits 94th among 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs with its rushing average of 3.88 yards per carry.
The Hawkeyes remain ninth in the Big Ten in rushing as a team, running for an average of 156.8 yards per game.
"We’ve moving the ball forward, but we’re not where we need it to be," Kelly-Martin said. "That average has to get better. That’s something we’re focused on getting done."
That starts with finding a way to bust loose for a big play or two on the ground.
Iowa has run the ball 364 times during its 6-3 start to the season, but only five of those carries have resulted in gains of 20 or more yards.
Two of those plays, carries of 40 and 24 yards by Toren Young, came in the Hawkeyes’ season-opening win over Northern Illinois. Two more, runs of 23 and 20 yards, were recorded by Mekhi Sargent at Penn State while the fifth was a 20-yard run by Ihmir Smith-Marsette on a sweep play against Wisconsin.
By comparison, Iowa moved the ball 20 yards or more on runs 17 times a year ago, including on 10 occasions when Akrum Wadley had the ball in his hands.
"If we were able to get more of those, our offense would be cooking a lot better than it has been," Kelly-Martin said.
Among 130 FBS teams, only four have fewer runs of 20-plus yards than the five collected by the Hawkeyes.
"We’re a team is known for being able to run the football, and when we don’t run it the way we knew we are capable of running it, that’s on all of us," center Keegan Render said. "We need to do a better job with the little things, finishing off blocks, that type of thing, to open the type of lanes they need."
Kelly-Martin, frustrated to a degree by an ankle sprain that has limited him to six games and impacted him in two more after he has aggravated it, said the Hawkeyes need to continue to push forward.
"We need to get that average up. We’re looking for 4.5 or so per carry. Anything less, we’re not satisfied with that," Kelly-Martin said. "We’ll keep working at it. We see the potential every day in practice. It’s a matter of carrying that over into games. We just haven’t been quite there yet."
Northwestern, with a defense led by the play of sophomore linebackers Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher, will test Iowa’s ability to take that next step.
The Wildcats have crafted their division-leading 5-1 record in Big Ten games around slowing opponents on the ground. Northwestern rates fifth in the conference in defending the run, allowing 143.2 rushing yards per game.
"They have a lot of skilled guys on their defense. We have to keep moving forward, find some ways to move the ball," Kelly-Martin said.
"Hopefully, this will be the week where be breakthrough with a couple of those big runs that we need. At the end of the day, we have to be better because we know that only helps the offense."