Iowa defense clicking on all cylinders heading into road matchup vs. high-powered Minnesota
Despite plenty of new faces, Iowa’s defense is proving to be a top-notch unit in the B1G. And it is about to be put to its biggest test of the season on Friday against Minnesota (1-2), the highest scoring team in the B1G West (109 points).
The Iowa defense showed flashes in the first two games, holding Purdue and Northwestern to 20 points each with 3 shutout quarters. The third time was the charm to put it all together. Iowa (1-2) earned its first victory of the season last Saturday (49-7 vs. Michigan State) in large part because of its stingy defense.
Iowa forced Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi into 3 interceptions, all in the first half. The Spartans’ only score came in the third quarter. Riley Moss scampered for a 54-yard pick-6 with 1:30 remaining in the first half to put Iowa ahead 35-0. The other interceptions were by Barrington Wade (second quarter) and Jack Koerner (first quarter).
“Michigan State had done a good job throwing the ball the week before and threw it deep, so you don’t want the quarterback just standing there twiddling his thumbs, waiting for receivers to get open,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We got the sacks, but we were disruptive and made (Lombardi) uncomfortable.”
Iowa also clamped down on the Michigan State running game. The Spartans tallied just 59 yards on 32 carries for a meager 1.8-yard average.
The Iowa defense is trending upward at the right time, as the Hawkeyes prepare to contend with exceptional Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim (571 yards, 10 touchdowns). Iowa has proven to be stout against the run, currently first in yards allowed (102.0) in the B1G. That is a key part of the reason the Hawkeyes are favored by 2.5 points against Minnesota by William Hill, per 247Sports.
The Hawkeyes are near the top of many B1G defensive categories, as they’re first in forced punts (22), second in first downs (17), third in points per game (17.3), third in passing yards (213), third in total yards per game (315) and third in interceptions (6).
These figures are all the more impressive considering longtime defensive coordinator Phil Parker was tasked with replacing 6 starters, including 3 NFL Draft picks (defensive end A.J. Epenesa, and defensive backs Michael Ojemudia and Geno Stone). Projected starters Austin Schulte (senior defensive lineman) and Jack Campbell (sophomore linebacker) are currently sidelined due to injury/illness.
Last season, Iowa ranked 5th nationally in points per game allowed (14.0) and was 1 of just 5 programs in the nation to rank in the top 20 in both passing and rushing defense.
Across all levels of the field, you can find quality contributors admirably filling the void this season.
Senior defensive end Chauncey Golston (3 sacks in 2019) flashed dynamic potential last season and has elevated his game now that Epenesa is gone. This season, Golston is tied for the team lead with 2 sacks and has 16 tackles.
Junior defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon has 2 sacks and 21 tackles. Nixon has the most tackles for loss in the B1G (6).
Ferentz is impressed with the pass rush considering the lack of experience.
“Chauncey is the only guy back that really was a starter, right. Daviyon is playing really well, and played last year, but he didn’t play last year like he’s playing now,” Ferentz said. “But he also had two seniors sitting in front of him that impacted that a little bit.”
The growing pains from last season have transitioned into impactful strides.
“The whole idea for everybody is to move forward, grow and move forward and improve, and sometimes you take a couple steps back when you’re trying to do that,” Ferentz said. “Failure is part of growth, but we’re seeing improvement, guys are working hard, and when guys work hard, that’s positive.”
Senior linebacker Nick Niemann has tallied a team-best 25 tackles. Senior linebacker Barrington Wade is tied for first on the team in interceptions (2) and has also registered a sack.
In terms of the pass defense, it wouldn’t be absurd to call Iowa “DBU” as of late. Iowa has the most interceptions (59) of any Power 5 program since 2017 and is on a 10-game streak of recording at least 1. The junior Koerner has been strong at defensive back, tied with Wade with 2 interceptions, and second on the team in tackles (23). Junior defensive back Riley Moss has logged 18 tackles and an interception.
Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan has somewhat regressed after an outstanding 2019 season. Morgan’s touchdown to interception ratio is 3:2, but in a rivalry game, anything is possible, so the Iowa defensive backs will have to be on their toes. Rashod Bateman is tops for Minnesota with 24 receptions, 302 yards and a touchdown.
The main areas in need of improvement are third down conversions (42 percent) and red zone conversions (89 percent), with Iowa ranking ninth in the B1G in each. Minnesota is 54 percent on third down conversions and 89 percent on red zone conversions.
Ferentz knows if Iowa wants to take the Floyd of Rosedale trophy against Minnesota and even its record, the defense will have to bring its absolute A-game.
“It was great to win the game Saturday, no question about it, but we have to put that one in the can and move on,” Ferentz said. “We have a big challenge playing Minnesota, it’s a trophy game and a rivalry game, so it’s always a tough battle. We are going to have to have a good week of preparation and be ready for it, but we’re looking forward to our trip to Minneapolis.”