By RICK BROWN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The play was designed to go left. University of Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent took quarterback Nate Stanley’s handoff and had a change of plans.
“The defense overflowed,” Sargent said. “I just had to make one guy miss.”
That one guy, Nebraska linebacker Mohamed Barry, tackled air. Sargent made him miss with a nifty cut to his right. He darted into the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown run late in the first half of the Hawkeyes’ 31-28 victory Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Sargent, small in stature, had a king-sized game as Iowa improved to 8-4 heading into its bowl game. He also had a touchdown catch, and rushed for a career-best 173 yards on 26 carries.
Iowa assistant coach Kelvin Bell saw Sargent play in a bowl game for Iowa Western Community College of Council Bluffs last season, and the Hawkeyes made a late move to sign him.
His play Saturday, and all season long, showed it was a sage move.
“It has been fun and enjoyable to watch Mekhi continue to grow,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “You look at him, he doesn’t look like anything special, he doesn’t look that big, this or that, but the guy is a good player. He is deceptively good, deceptively strong when he runs the ball. On top of that, he is as good of a young guy as we have on our football team.”
Iowa has gone with a three-back rotation all season. Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin had some experience in the program. It was Sargent who got a team-high 152 carries in the regular season and is the team’s leading rusher with 748 yards.
Young has 630 yards on 133 carries and Kelly-Martin, slowed by injury this season, has added 341 yards on 92 carries. Young finished with 83 yards in 18 carries against Nebraska and ran for his fifth touchdown of the season.
“Toren ran hard,” Ferentz said. “He always does and with a lot of energy.”
Young quickly adapted the newcomer. No jealousy.
“It’s a team game,” Young said. “It’s never about one guy. Our running back room is close knit this year. Mehki hit the ground running.”
Sargent had a tough moment in the team’s previous game at Kinnick. With just under seven minutes to play and the Hawkeyes trailing Northwestern, 14-10, Sargent fumbled and the Wildcats recovered at midfield.
But against Nebraska, with the game tied at 28, and Iowa on its final possession, Sargent got the call on a third-and-1 play and gained 16 yards. He had six carries in the final drive, which resulted in a game-winning 41-yard field goal from Miguel Recinos.
“Hold on to the ball and drive, hold on to the ball and drive,” Sargent told himself.
With two seasons of eligibility remaining, Sargent has a bright future and his confidence has grown alongside his Division I experience.
“Honestly, my confidence has grown tremendously,” said Sargent, who had 121 yards on 17 carries last week at Illinois and has a team-best n,ine touchdowns this season.
Sargent has quickly become a Kinnick Stadium favorite, and he can hear the crowd when he breaks off a productive run.
“Kinnick is electric, every time I’m out there,” he said.
One wouldn’t label Sargent a crushing blocker because of his size, but he is productive there as well. He had a crushing block during Iowa’s touchdown drive to start the game. He also cleared space for Stanley his a 10-yard run on a third-and-7 play from its own 18 in the second quarter. That drive ended on Sargent’s nifty cut and 15-yard touchdown run.
“I just think the most physical guy wins,” Sargent said of his approach to blocking. “I don’t want to lose the battle.”
After a season that saw no 100-yard rusher in the first 10 games, the streak is now two heading into the bowl season.
“The offensive line has been blocking great all year,” Sargent said. “I felt like it was up to the running back group to bring that extra effort.”