TAMPA — Perhaps nobody on Iowa's team appreciates the offensive line — and its newfound consistency — more than running back Mark Weisman.
Last year in a game against Penn State, starting offensive linemen Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal went down with season-ending injuries. The Hawkeyes, 4-2 at the time, lost the game and didn't win another, finishing 4-8.
This year, with good health on their side, the Hawkeyes have started the same five linemen in all 12 games. It has paid dividends for an ever improving offense that faces LSU (9-3) in the Outback Bowl on Wednesday.
Iowa (8-4) averages 189 rushing yards a game, and five Hawkeyes have at least 36 carries and 100 rushing yards. Weisman is 27 yards from his first 1,000-yard season, and he knows just whom to thank.
"The offensive line; that's where it all starts," Weisman said. "That's how the running game works. It makes it an easier job for the running backs. I give all the credit to them."
Sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock is seeing the benefits of consistency as well. Last season Iowa allowed 22 sacks. This year it has allowed 12, the 11th fewest in Division I-A.
"The line gets a big part of that, and they deserve a big part of that," offensive coordinator Greg Davis said.
In 2012 the Hawkeyes averaged just 91 rushing yards a game after Scherff and Donnal were hurt. Weisman, who had 815 rushing yards, had just 184 in the final six games.
"(Scherff and Donnal) were two guys that had a lot of experience and knew what they were doing," starting center Austin Blythe said. "They were guys that did things right. It was a huge detriment to our offensive line and our team."
This year's unit — left tackle Scherff, left guard Conor Boffeli, Blythe, right guard Jordan Walsh and right tackle Brett Van Sloten, with Donnal rotating in at right guard — isn't nearly as deep as Davis would like, but the linemen have been doing what is asked of them, he said. Sophomore Walsh thinks that has a lot to do with the unit's chemistry.
Walsh said he and the rest of the linemen enjoy playing video games at Blythe's house and often go bowling or to movies together in their free time. Those moments help them get the job done in games, he said.
By starting every game together, the unit has jelled. That close-knit feeling will come in handy against LSU, which ranks 20th nationally in total defense.
Rudock has seen his team struggle with injuries on the offensive line, so he knows what a benefit a healthy one can be.
"That's something you can never underappreciate," Rudock said. "They're protecting me, they're protecting everybody, allowing the offense to move. No matter what anybody tells you, it always starts in the trenches."
Kelly Parsons can be reached at [email protected]