IOWA CITY — It all begins up front.
For Iowa’s 19th-ranked football team and the Iowa State squad it faces in Saturday’s 3 p.m. game at Jack Trice Stadium, the ability to control the line of scrimmage and dictate what level of effectiveness teams have on the ground will go a long way in determining the outcome of this year’s Cy-Hawk dispute.
"You’ve got to move the ball on the ground if you want to put yourself in a position to win," Iowa offensive guard Landan Paulsen said.
The Hawkeyes and Cyclones approach that objective with differing levels of experience.
Iowa has veteran backs in Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young working behind an offensive line that, with Alaric Jackson still sidelined by a sprained right knee, has 32 combined starts including 22 by Tristan Wirfs.
They’ll work against a veteran ISU defensive front seven.
"They led the Big 12 in limiting yards per rush a year ago, and it’s pretty much the same cast," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We’ve seen a lot of the same names on their depth chart the last two, three years, and those young guys are veterans now."
On the flip side, Iowa State has a young collection of running backs working behind one of the most veteran offensive lines in the country.
The Cyclones’ starting front five on offense has combined for 114 career starts, the fifth-most experienced offensive line in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
They’re blocking from a group of rushers that was led by Johnnie Lang, Sheldon Croney and Breece Hall in the ISU’s season-opening triple-overtime win over Northern Iowa and is expected to regain the services of Kene Nwangwu after he exited the opener with a shoulder injury.
The Cyclones will face an Iowa defensive front four with a combined 14 career starts but experience from being part of an eight-player rotation a year ago.
"They’re really talented guys who really fly to the ball. They’re long, they’re strong and very disciplined," Iowa State offensive guard Josh Knipfel said. "They’re very detailed in everything they do. We have to take care of things, limit penalties, not beat ourselves."
Both teams have had early-season success on the ground, and Saturday, all 10 projected offensive line starters are products of Iowa high school football programs.
"That says a lot about the quality of the programs and the quality of coaching in the state," Ferentz said.
The Hawkeyes have averaged 203.5 rushing yards during their 2-0 start to the season while the Cyclones gained 185 yards on the ground in their opener. Iowa’s defense is surrendering 68.5 yards per game on the ground while ISU gave up 34 rushing yards in its lone game to date.
"Coach Brian (Ferentz, the Iowa offensive coordinator) wants us to average 5 yards per carry, and so far, we’ve been able to get that done," Sargent said.
"The line is doing a great job, and we’ve been able to hit some creases and pick up the kind of yardage that we feel like we’re capable of gaining."
And when Iowa runs the ball effectively, the Hawkeyes have typically been successful.
Over the last five seasons, the Hawkeyes are 38-4 when rushing for at least 100 yards in a game.
When they haven’t reached that benchmark, Iowa is 1-12, with the lone win coming in the 27-22 Outback Bowl game against Mississippi State in January.
Those numbers play out over time in the Cy-Hawk series as well.
Iowa has won 11 of the last 20 games between the teams and has out-gained Iowa State on the ground in 14 of those games.
The Hawkeyes have beaten the Cyclones just once during that timeframe when rushing for fewer than 100 yards. They out-rushed ISU 85-66 in that game to win 17-10 in 2005.
Over the past five seasons, Iowa has averaged 171.2 yards per game on the ground against its in-state opponent while it held ISU to an average of 82 rushing yards.
That has assisted the Hawkeyes in building their ongoing four-game win streak in the Cy-Hawk series. It is something Young said Iowa must work to get done again this year if Iowa hopes to add to its string of success.
"We need to set the tempo on offense, and that starts with moving the ball on the ground," Young said. "Their defensive line in general is pretty good and they’ll do what they can to disrupt the run. It will be a test for us. We understand that."
The Hawkeyes, averaging a gain of 5.1 yards on the 80 times they have run the football this season, expect to be tested this week against an Iowa State front line anchored by nose guard Ray Lima which limited UNI to 1.1 yards per rushing attempt.
Iowa has rotated offensive linemen throughout its first two games, and Ferentz said that will likely continue against the Cyclones.
Paulsen, a fifth-year senior preparing to start for the first time in a Cy-Hawk game, sees that working for Iowa.
"Our motto this year is ‘I am because of us,’ and that’s really true," Paulsen said. "This is about what we can do together and how we work together. We’ve seen that the first couple of games, and that gives us something we want to build off of now."
Sargent said that is what it will take against the defense the Hawkeyes are preparing to face.
"The coaches like to get the run game going," he said. "A healthy run game is what it takes to open some things up in the passing game, and that’s where it will always start for us."
That’s especially the case Saturday where, as usual, it all begins up front.
"That’s Iowa and Iowa State. That’s what it’s all about," Paulsen said.