Relive the Hawkeyes' home win over the 15th-ranked Cornhuskers Friday. David Scrivner / The Iowa City Press-Citizen
Saquon Barkley couldn’t have known the impact his words would have in the 20 days that followed. He probably didn’t intend to take a swipe at the Iowa football team when he said it.
But when the star Penn State running back questioned the Hawkeyes’ desire after a 41-14 rout Nov. 5 at Beaver Stadium, it changed the course of Iowa’s season.
That is clear now, after the Hawkeyes turned Barkley’s comments into motivation to finish the regular season in resounding fashion, a three-game winning streak capped by Friday’s 40-10 home win over then-No. 15 Nebraska.
Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell admitted that Barkley’s truth-telling hurt, saying it caused Hawkeye players to think, “Maybe we should kick it up a little more.”
Defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie confessed, “you take those kind of things to heart when people question your heart or your drive to want to be a competitor.”
The defense responded with a punishing three-game effort. In 12 quarters of wins over then-No. 3 Michigan, Illinois and the Cornhuskers, Iowa opponents averaged just 2.49 yards per rush (100 carries, 249 yards) and 3.53 yards per pass attempt (44 completions in 104 throws for 367 yards).
Contrast that to the 6.9 yards per rush and 13.3 per pass Iowa allowed to Barkley and the Nittany Lions in Happy Valley, and the turnaround is incredible.
That’s why the final DVR Monday of the regular season pays special attention to the Hawkeyes' defense, which showed ramped-up intensity, passion and heart in the closing weeks.
One of the greats
Cornerback Desmond King isn’t going to win back-to-back Jim Thorpe Awards; he’s not a finalist this year — probably because his statistics (and Iowa’s record) aren’t what they were a year ago.
But as the Nebraska game showed, King has never played better, more complete football. Not only did King deliver shut-down pass coverage and uncork the longest punt return of his career — 44 yards on his last at Kinnick Stadium — but he did the little things, too.
With Iowa leading 6-0 in the first quarter, Nebraska ran explosive wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El around the end — with 240-pound fullback Luke McNitt leading the way. But King (5-11, 203) not only fought through McNitt’s block, but he made the solo tackle on Pierson-El for a minimal gain.
By reputation and performance, King still has a shot at becoming just the ninth two-time consensus all-American in Iowa football history. Those honors will be doled out in December. He certainly would deserve it.
“It would mean a lot, having your name up there with that title,” King said Friday, “with famous guys like Nike Kinnick, Chuck Long — guys like that (who) have been tremendous, on and off the field.”
Big plays often happen as a result of missed assignments by a linebacker or safety. So it’s no mistake that Iowa is getting fantastic play in both areas.
Recall that in that Penn State game, Iowa gave up five plays of 40 yards or more.
In the last three games, Iowa hasn’t allowed a single one.
In fact, there’s been only one play of 20-plus yards (a 29-yard completion to Michigan’s Jehu Chesson) in 194 opponent snaps since Barkley’s comments.
More Hawkeye football coverage:
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- Breaking down Iowa's possible bowl destinations
There’s a lot of credit to go around.
Safeties Brandon Snyder and Anthony Gair are playing cleanup in the back end.
But special credit of late should go to junior Ben Niemann, who plays Iowa’s magic, underappreciated position on defense: the outside linebacker.
He’s asked to cover receivers and take on offensive linemen, and he’s excelled at doing both. On one Tommy Armstrong flare pass to Tre Bryant, Niemann saw it coming and stoned Bryant for a 1-yard loss.
After an admittedly sluggish start to the season after an offseason full of injuries, Niemann’s sure rounding into shape.
“I’ve been trying to (step up),” Niemann said humbly. “We all have.”
A nose for the ball
Iowa’s young defensive ends — viewed as a preseason concern — seem to take another step forward every week.
Let’s take a closer look at Anthony Nelson. A lot of redshirt freshmen wear down as the season progresses, but Nelson seemed to only improve.
Not only did Nelson do an excellent job of staying home to reel in Armstrong (six rushes, 13 yards), but when he did try to run, he finished with a bang.
On the Cornhuskers’ final series, with Ryker Fyfe at quarterback, Nelson made his presence felt against Nebraska No. 1 left tackle Nick Gates on each snap.
Play 1: Nelson drove Gates backward with such force that the offensive lineman made contact with Fyfe as he unloaded an incomplete pass.
Play 2: Nelson charged into the backfield and hurried Fyfe’s screen pass that went for only 2 yards.
Play 3: Nelson was just too much, completely beating Gates and sacking Fyfe for a 10-yard loss.
It was an excellent cap to the Waukee High School alum’s first regular season; and it reflected the progress shown by the other two young guys — sophomores Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson — in the three-man defensive-end rotation.
Full speed ahead
When you need two yards — and the other team knows you’re going to run the ball — what do you do?
Let Sean Welsh lead the way.
That was the case as Iowa faced fourth-and-2 from Nebraska’s 25 as it tried to salt this game away.
C.J. Beathard handed off to LeShun Daniels Jr., and Welsh, pulling left from his right-guard spot, pancaked linebacker Dedrick Young to clear a rushing lane for a 3-yard pickup. First down.
Iowa’s offensive line has struggled with producing consistent pass protection, but Friday exemplified this team’s strength: run blocking.
Iowa rushed for 164 yards against Michigan, 262 at Illinois and 264 against Nebraska.
This happened after rushing for 30 yards at Penn State — again, pre-Barkley comments.
“They did a great job today,” Beathard said. “They’ve really done a good job the last three weeks.”
An obvious electricity
Maybe it’s a combination of Iowa’s performance and playing under the lights...
But the Kinnick Stadium crowd the past two home games — both seen and heard by national ABC TV audiences — really popped.
The excitement of beating two top-15 teams to close the home schedule was certainly a nice sendoff for Hawkeye fans who suffered through back-to-back-to-back home losses to North Dakota State, Northwestern and Wisconsin — and were probably wondering whether a five-game home losing streak was in the cards.
The fans brought it on the holiday weekend. And don’t think the head coach didn’t notice.
“The last two times out in Kinnick are about as good as it gets,” Kirk Ferentz said afterward. “It was just unbelievable out there — the atmosphere tonight — just like it was last time we were here. And I'll speak for everybody involved in our program, just how appreciative we are of our fan support. We don't take that for granted. They are the best, and we really appreciate that.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.