This year, the expectations were for high for sophomore running back Izzy Matthews coming off of a freshman season in which he burst onto the scene running for 667-yards on 97 carries, much of it coming in the last half of the season.
From all accounts, Matthews came into the 2016 season leaner and lighter, and ready to jump off from last year’s campaign. Then, during fall camp, Matthews sprained his ankle, throwing a hitch into that second-year kickstart.
Matthews was not healthy to start the season and it showed. The sophomore ran the ball seven times for 13-yards in the season opening loss to the University of Colorado, and over the first three weeks, Matthews was lacking the power he had last season.
Overall, in the first three games of the season, Matthews ran the ball 31 times for 125-yards while averaging just over four-yards per carry. In the last four games, he’s carried the ball 46 times for 213-yards, and over a half a yard better per carry than the start of the season.
“It was definitely tough,” Matthews said of the setback. “You could tell in that first game that I was not ready. I tried to force myself to be season ready when I just was not quite there because I was just so excited for the season.”
In the week four game against the University of Minnesota, Matthews looked to finally be getting back into his old form. He finished the day with only 47-yards on seven carries, but Matthews was finally showing signs of returning to last year’s form.
After the game, Bobo said that Matthews was getting “closer” to being fully healthy, and that has only progressed through the last three weeks.
“I would definitely say the Minnesota game was the first game where I felt like i’m ready to be a productive division-one college back,” Matthews said. “I was eased into it, seven carries, six carries (over the first three games) and you saw it kind of pick up because they (coaching staff) started to trust the ankle.”
Against Boise State on Saturday, Matthews picked up 55-yards on 11 carries, and his ability to pick up yards after contact and finish his runs were the signs showing the most promise.
“The style that I ran with, it was really reminiscent of last year,” Matthews said. “They (coaching staff) have just been wanting me to get back to that and I feel like I’m starting to get back to what I was doing last year.”
During Monday’s press conference Bobo said that a healthy Matthews brings “the ability to make some people miss in space and break some tackles.” Bobo added that he thought Matthews “ran the ball probably the best he has ran this season,” during the Boise State game.
“The Boise game, I was out there having a blast,” Matthews said. “I was finishing my runs, I mean when you have guys upfront like that, you don’t have to worry about getting touched until you are three or four yards beyond the line of scrimmage.”
Bobo noted a specific first quarter play where Matthews was left one-on-one with a corner and he was able to lower his shoulder and pick up four-yards after contact. Early in the season, Bobo said that Matthews might have tried to run sideways instead of putting his shoulder down and getting extra yards while punishing the defender.
“That’s what your backs have to do if you are going to be successful,” Bobo said. “A healthy Izzy gives us the ability to break more tackles. I think he can punish guys in the back end.”
Offensive coordinator Will Friend echoed the “punisher” statement.
“He has to be a physical,” Friend said. “If you are 220 (pounds), you kind of got to be the guy who wears on defense and that’s the way he needs to run.”
“It’s who I am, and it’s what I am,” Matthews said. “It’s what I have been my entire life. Just somebody who just finishes runs on my own terms. I can’t just continue to avoid contact, I can’t be hesitant in the hole. That’s the aspect of the game that I really need to get into. (Getting) my pads low, running hard, running physically. When you are 220 pounds, that’s what you are meant for.”
And part of becoming the “punisher” that Matthew’s and the coaches see him as comes from gaining confidence in his own health and ability as he progresses from his early season setback. Whereas now he can see a hole and hit the quick cut needed to get into that hole, hesitation and delayed steps made for a different result earlier in the year.
Bringing that physical presence was something Matthews, and the coaching staff both knew the sophomore was lacking in the first part of the season, but both parties also noted the same progression over the last month of the year.
Matthews is starting to once again look like the runner of last season,which bodes well for the Rams, and poorly for second-level defenders on opposing teams the rest of this season.
Collegian sports reporter Eric Wolf can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Eric_Wolf5