Iowa football: Dominant defensive line a pleasant B1G surprise
Heading into the season, fans and the media were openly curious about how Iowa would fill the void of drafted defensive end A.J. Epenesa. The Iowa defensive line wasn’t expected to generate much pressure without the two-time first-team All-B1G selection.
However, a by-committee approach has worked wonders in filling the void of Epenesa, a second-round pick by the Buffalo Bills.
And after another strong performance by the unit in Iowa’s 41-21 victory on Saturday at floundering Penn State, it’s clear that the Hawkeyes defensive line is a major factor for their three-game winning streak and first time above .500 this season.
The stingy Iowa defense held Penn State scoreless in the second and fourth quarters.
Junior defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon’s clutch 71-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter was the dagger that sent Penn State to its first 0-5 record in program history. On the play, Iowa blitzed Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford, who threw in Nixon’s direction. The big DT immediately licked his chops.
The nifty Nixon managed to cross up Clifford in the process.
— Hawkeye Football (@HawkeyeFootball) November 22, 2020
“My job at that point was to get outside contain, and the quarterback’s been dumping it down to the running back the whole game to the flat,” Nixon said. “And I just kind of waited for his eyes to get big. And once I seen him about to throw it, I knew that that was the moment I was about to get the pick.”
With his first touchdown at any level of football within his sights, Nixon wasn’t about to run out the clock.
“I didn’t even hear anyone say to get down,” Nixon said. “I just knew that, once the ball was in my hands, that I was getting to the end zone. That was my goal. I had to score.”
Nixon also added a sack, his fourth of the season. He has surpassed his total from last season (3). Nixon has stepped up his game this season with 23 tackles and a forced fumble.
Whenever the defensive line makes an impactful play, it provides a spark that translates to other Iowa units.
“We know that this team feeds off our energy and that everything we do starts up front,” Nixon said. “We know we’ve got to go out every game, every snap, every series, every play and try to make a difference in the game.”
Senior defensive end Zach VanValkenburg, the reigning B1G Defensive Player of the Week, continues to wreak havoc. After amassing three sacks in the win against Minnesota, VanValkenburg finished with 1.5 tackles for loss and 2 fumble recoveries.
The humble VanValkenburg deflected the praise from his fumble recoveries and instead said he was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.
Reigning B1G DPOW @zach_vanvalk is having another day.
— Iowa On BTN (@IowaOnBTN) November 21, 2020
“Absolute pure luck,” VanValkenburg said. “That’s why they tell you to run to the ball.”
Junior defensive end Chauncey Golston had an excellent game as well. Golston tallied a sack, a tackle for loss, and an interception. Golston’s interception came in the fourth quarter on a deflection by Nixon. Iowa blitzed on that play too.
Defensive tackle Jack Heflin added a sack for a team total of 5.
Not only did Iowa’s defensive line limit the passing opportunities, they also held Penn State’s rushing attack in check. Penn State finished with only 62 yards rushing.
Iowa had a shaky start and allowed Penn State quarterback Will Levis to pick up 44 rushing yards during a first-quarter touchdown drive. But after that, Iowa ramped up the pressure and denied Penn State on short-yard attempts on third and fourth down in the second quarter.
“It really just comes down to playing our assignments. It wasn’t anything crazy. They weren’t gashing us, just little chunks, just death by inches,” VanValkenburg said. “And we did a good job of closing that down. I think we have a lot of really good synergy as a unit, and obviously that showed (Saturday).”
The Iowa defensive line showcased its depth against Penn State too. Backup defensive tackle Noah Shannon had a pass breakup and freshman defensive end Yahya Black contributed to a 1-yard loss.
After middling performances in losses against Purdue and Northwestern, Iowa’s defensive line has been superb the last three weeks. Iowa recorded 7 tackles for loss against Michigan State and 5 tackles for losses vs. Minnesota.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who notched his 100th B1G victory on Saturday, is extremely pleased that the defensive line has shored up its early season woes.
💯 Big Ten Wins.
— Hawkeye Football (@HawkeyeFootball) November 21, 2020
“We were less than impressive in my opinion three weeks ago, four weeks ago. It started with the run. We were too soft on the run. And I know a lot of questions were asked about, were we going to get pressure?” Ferentz said. “I’m pleased with the progress. But hopefully we’ve got a lot more left in us.”
With a dominant defensive line peaking at the right time, the Hawkeyes definitely appear to have plenty left in them as we head down the final stretch of the regular season. Iowa has its groove back and a ton of credit belongs to the big men up front.