Iowa defense heeds message at halftime: 'We need to do more'

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

NEW YORK — The Iowa defense was tired of getting trucked in Wednesday’s Pinstripe Bowl.

Boston College running back A.J. Dillon was having his way. Quarterback Darius Wade was finding open receivers. The Eagles amassed an amazing 281 yards in the first half at Yankee Stadium, the most the Hawkeyes had surrendered before intermission this year.

The halftime message was simple, Iowa defensive end Anthony Nelson said.

“How we’re playing right now is not good enough. We need to do more. And it’s not going to be any excuses," Nelson recalled. "It’s you and them. You’ve got to win the bowl game in the next 30 minutes."

Iowa senior linebacker Josey Jewell is all smiles after the Hawkeyes won, 27-20, over Boston College during the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in Bronx, New York on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017.

And that’s exactly what Iowa’s defense did. Dillon had 126 yards at halftime. He gained just 31 on 14 carries afterward.

Boston College had 13 first downs at halftime. The Eagles gained only three afterward.

Iowa forced two turnovers in the second half and erased a seven-point halftime deficit for a 27-20 victory that snapped a five-game bowl losing streak.

“We had to change our defensive line up, moving them into the right gaps instead of maybe getting blocked out and leaving a huge crease where there’s not supposed to be a crease. And us linebackers understanding where they were going to be and where we need to fit off them,” Hawkeye middle linebacker Josey Jewell explained.

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“There was a huge gap in our run defense in the first half. Coaches did a great job of diagnosing it.”

If the signature play of the first half was Dillon bolting off right tackle for a 66-yard gain on third-and-1, in the second half it was Nelson swooping in to jostle just as he was going to pass the football. The fumble was recovered by Iowa’s Parker Hesse. The game-winning touchdown came on the ensuing drive.

“I just got off the ball, probably one of my best get-offs of the game. Got off the ball quick enough to get to the edge and then turn and was able to kind of slide and slip into the quarterback. I didn’t really realize the ball was out at first,” Nelson said.

“The play is a fumble, but if they jump back on it, the impact is not nearly as large. Parker won’t get the credit he deserves for jumping on that and making it what it was.”

That was the kind of teamwork that was too often missing in the first half. In the second, the Hawkeyes swarmed to the ball, gobbling up the 240-pound Dillon before he could accelerate.

"We just played a little tougher, a little grittier in the second half," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Certainly, it starts up front, too. That's where a lot of good things happen."

“Our gameplan was to stop the run and make them throw. I think in the first half, we gave up a little too much in the run on first downs,” Iowa safety Jake Gervase said.

“As soon as we stopped the run, that made them a little uncomfortable and made them throw the ball.”

When Wade did, it sometimes ended up in the wrong hands. Gervase had a first-quarter interception; cornerback Josh Jackson essentially sealed the win with a fourth-quarter pick that was his eighth of the season, tying a program record.

“We weren’t doing a good enough job of holding our ground,” Nelson said. “Really it was just doing our job, getting down, doing whatever it takes to get there.”

Doing their job made a world of difference. In the end, it was the Hawkeyes' defense that won the game.