Analysis: This Hawkeye win was about rising star Josh Jackson

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Call this the Josh Jackson game.

The Iowa junior cornerback, who has anchored the secondary all year long like a veteran despite only one career start entering the season, had the game of his life Saturday in a 17-10 victory over Minnesota at Kinnick Stadium.

The Gophers kept testing him for some reason. Jackson kept swatting passes away, four of them in all to raise his Big Ten Conference-leading total to 15.

Iowa's Josh Jackson (15) breaks up a pass intended for Minnesota's Tyler Johnson during their football game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Iowa City. Iowa would go on to win 17-10 to take home the Floyd of Rosedale trophy.

On a night when Iowa got Josey Jewell back from a shoulder injury, Jackson did the unthinkable – he upstaged the team’s star senior middle linebacker.

“When he’s tuned in and ready to go, he’s a nightmare matchup for the opposing offense,” Iowa safety Jake Gervase said of Jackson.

“He makes my job easier, just having that trust that he’s going to do his job, whether he’s manned up, whether we’re playing Cover 2, just knowing that he’s going to jam and sync.”

Jam and sync. Matchup nightmare.

If that sounds familiar to Hawkeye fans, it’s because those were traits also ascribed to Desmond King, the all-America cornerback who graduated last year and now toils for the Los Angeles Chargers.

After what Jackson has done as the bedrock of a Hawkeye secondary in flux this season, it’s worth asking if he’s every bit as valuable as King was for four years here.

“Those are both guys that can shut down a third of the field every time they’re out there,” Gervase said. “(Jackson is) a tough guy, he’s a competitor and he’s a freak athlete so he goes out there and makes plays.”

“I think they’re pretty much the same,” Jewell said of King and Jackson.

That’s the highest of praise for Jackson, a onetime wide receiver out of Corinth, Texas, who started in Iowa’s Outback Bowl loss last season and entered this year as a bit of unknown.

He's been so good this year that he's already being mentioned as a possible NFL Draft pick.

Jackson watched as free safety Brandon Snyder went down with a knee injury in the spring. Snyder was supposed to be the leader of the secondary. He was replaced by Gervase, then Amani Hooker, then Snyder came back for one game and then Gervase regained that starting role.

Strong safety was manned by Miles Taylor when the year began, a seasoned veteran. He’s been benched for Hooker.

Opposite Jackson at cornerback was supposed to be sophomore Manny Rugamba, who was outstanding last season but suspended for this year’s opener for a violation of team rules. Michael Ojemudia stepped in for that game, and again when Rugamba injured his ankle.

Through all the turmoil, Jackson held steady. He made plays, including a pair of interceptions to go with all those breakups.

Jackson made his biggest play early in Saturday’s punt-fest, and Gervase was the beneficiary. Minnesota was trailing 7-0 but had a first down at the Iowa 14-yard line. Sophomore quarterback Demry Croft tried to force a pass to a wide receiver who was blanketed by Jackson. Jackson slapped the football in the air, and Gervase cradled it in the end zone.

Touchdown denied.

“I knew Josh was manned up. I manned up on the back there and I saw the back stayed in and blocked so I just tried to get a little depth,” Gervase said. “That play’s all Josh Jackson. I’m just running to the football once I see the ball thrown.”

It was Iowa’s only turnover of the game, but Jackson wasn’t done altering the outcome.

He broke up a third-down pass attempt in the second quarter, and two more in the third quarter

In the fourth quarter, Jackson made a superb ankle tackle to stop Gophers tailback Rodney Smith short on another third-down play. Minnesota gained only 139 yards passing on 29 attempts.  

Iowa forced nine punts. Jackson was responsible for four of them.

There were plenty of other success stories for the Iowa defense, including four sacks by a fired-up line. The Gophers managed only 4-of-18 conversions on third and fourth down.

Poor punting reared its head again for Iowa, putting the defense in some undesirable field position. Minnesota somehow managed an edge in time of possession despite averaging 3.9 yards per play.

The Hawkeye defense never flinched, yielding only one big play – a 63-yard catch and run by Tyler Johnson, who took advantage when Gervase slipped to the ground.

Jackson saw the play unfolding from the opposite side of the field and helped chase Johnson down, along with Hooker. Minnesota could only manage a field goal.

“Throughout the game, we did well at being able to keep up the tempo, being able to keep up the stoppage and being consistent,” said Jewell, who had 11 tackles. “Being able to play the whole four quarters was big.”

Jackson was as big as anybody. After the game, he was asked to account for his success and gave a standard Hawkeye answer, talking about his preparation more than his physical talent.

“I think it starts with practice every day. I try to come out and work hard and study the opponent hard and when it gets to games I see the same formation and I know what they’re going to do out of it,” Jackson said.

On Saturday, that game plan included a lot of man-to-man coverage, something Jackson excels at.

Minnesota learned the hard way that you can’t mess with the Texan.