The Iowa junior may have had his best game as a Hawkeye.
IOWA CITY, Ia. – There’s one Iowa football position group that probably has received the least amount of attention during this rise to a 6-0 record and No. 17 national ranking.
And that’s probably exactly how Kirk Ferentz would want it.
With almost shocking subtlety, the starting defensive tackles – 310-pound junior Jaleel Johnson and 284-pound sophomore Nathan Bazata – have been an unsung factor in Iowa's unbeaten start.
They’ve been healthy, for one, and consistently effective. Iowa ranks fifth nationally in rushing defense, yielding an average of 78 yards a game (and 2.53 yards per carry). Those numbers would be even lower if the only opponent to top 100, North Texas, didn't rack up 130 second-half rushing yards in an Iowa blowout.
“The combination of what Jaleel and Nate are doing, we're playing better defense right now as a team, and they're part of that,” Ferentz said after Saturday’s 29-20 win over Illinois. “… You’ve got to be strong up the middle on any team, and those guys are really doing a good job with not a lot of experience, so I'm really proud of them.”
Johnson was a tone-setter and difference-maker after a hiccup in pregame warmups when he forgot to take his third snap in a team drill.
“We go three plays of teamwork, and then the 2s come in in pregame,” Ferentz said. “For whatever reason, he came out after two, so they had 10 guys on the field on that third play. Luckily, it didn't count.
“But to me it was the lowlight in his day. I noticed it. I'll talk to him about that."
Johnson and Bazata each had one sack of Illinois’ Wes Lunt on Saturday.
Johnson was particularly disruptive. On Illinois’ first snap, he stuffed Ke’Shawn Vaughn for a 2-yard gain. On the next one, his pressure hurried Lunt into an incompletion.
On third-and-1 with Iowa’s lead 13-7 in the second quarter, Johnson thundered through the line of scrimmage to stop Vaughn for no gain, forcing an Illini punt.
“I’ve just got to go every game like that,” Johnson said.
Ferentz has needled the Iowa media a bit for writing tons about Iowa’s preseason question marks at offensive tackle (with untested sophomores Ike Boettger and Boone Myers), especially when the Hawkeyes were also replacing two defensive tackles in Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat.
With the way Johnson, in particular, is playing – there’s been no drop-off to analyze.
“It’s definitely fun (being out there),” Johnson said. “Just watching those guys perform at the highest level, I just want to go out and do the same thing.”
When the interior of the defensive line is playing solid football, they’re often the last guys to get a lot of ink. Their impact isn’t always measured on the stat sheet. An effective defensive tackle can gobble up offensive linemen and push them into the backfield, allowing teammates a crease to make tackles.
Johnson’s season-high six tackles Saturday gave him 22 for the season – ninth on the team. Bazata is 10th with 19. They’ve combined for five tackles for loss and five QB hurries.
“Can always get better,” Johnson said. “Make mistakes, just watch the tape and keep getting better every week.”
Johnson doesn’t say too much. But he might get a little more attention now, with defensive end Drew Ott likely lost for the season after suffering a knee injury against the Illini. Johnson’s role as a run-game disrupter just becomes that much more important. With Ott out, redshirt freshman Parker Hesse will likely get his second career start in Saturday’s 11 a.m. showdown at No. 20 Northwestern.
The Johnson/Bazata contributions have been there for us to see. After Iowa's 31-14 season-opening win over Illinois State, Ferentz dropped in this line: "It doesn't seem like we missed much in there with those two guys playing."
Nobody really picked up on that quote then; but more are starting to notice Iowa's defensive tackles now.