IOWA CITY, Ia. — The late, great Norm Parker would love this Iowa defense. Eleven guys playing as one. Not flashy, but connected at the hip.
Parker was Iowa’s defensive coordinator for 13 years before retiring after the 2011 season. Parker had that special touch with his players, who would run through a wall for him. On the field, they played to his bend-but-don’t-break personality.
The Hawkeyes are playing at a high level defensively again this season, and doing it for another guy named Parker. Phil Parker, a lifer on coach Kirk Ferentz’s staff, coached the secondary under Norm’s umbrella and replaced him as defensive coordinator. Phil Parker has made some tweaks, but the foundation of his defensive principles are straight from the Book of Norm.
If defense wins championships, Iowa’s in good position with four regular-season games remaining. The Hawkeyes are 8-0 and ranked 10th, with a defense that has put together some pretty gaudy numbers.
Fifth nationally in rushing defense. Sixth in scoring defense. Seventh in total defense. Eighth in red zone defense. You can just imagine old Norm smiling down on those numbers and telling Phil, “Good job, kid.” This is a team Norm Parker would love to coach.
“I think he would,” Ferentz said. “I go back to 2008. It’s a quote he had back in August (of 2008). He looked at our team and said, 'We have a lot of good players, but it’s not like we have a major superstar.' Shonn Greene emerged out of that group, but back in preseason nobody saw that coming, necessarily.”
Greene rushed for a school-record 1,850 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2008, and won the Doak Walker Award that goes to the nation’s top running back. There’s your exception to the rule.
This team could follow a similar script. Cornerback Desmond King is one interception shy of tying the school single-season record of eight set by Nile Kinnick in 1939 and matched by Lou King in 1981. Teams keep testing King.
“I still can’t figure that out,” said the Hawkeyes’ other cornerback, Greg Mabin. “I’m not an offensive coordinator, so I can’t speak for them. He has a natural ability to go get the ball, and he uses it to the best of his ability.”
Iowa has been salty against the run all season. The Hawkeyes have allowed just one rushing touchdown. "Again, it’s really a team effort,” Ferentz said. “I think the guys are doing a great job of feeding off each other. When that happens, good things can be the result.”
The No. 1 defense has also allowed just eight passing touchdowns, a figure that will get tested Saturday at Air Indiana. The Hoosiers are 0-4 in the Big Ten, but it’s not because of their offense. Indiana leads the Big Ten in passing offense and total offense.
In practice this week, the secondary has gotten extra work covering deep balls. And the defensive calls have been sent in late on purpose, forcing the players to adjust on the fly to prepare for the Hoosiers’ up-tempo attack.
This will be a big challenge for an Iowa defense yielding 201.9 passing yards per game. A defense, with the exception of King, devoid of stars. A defense allowing just 15.3 points a game.
“The collection of the parts is probably more impressive than any one individual,” Ferentz said.
This is a group that plays on the same page.
“They seem to be clicking, taking care of their responsibilities,” Ferentz said. “When they do that, it gives everybody a chance to kind of get in the flow of things.”
It’s the kind of defense a coach appreciates. A defense that Norm Parker would love.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.
Iowa players and coaches are more focused on their upcoming game in Bloomington than the College Football Playoff rankings.