Hawkeyes eager to unleash a better pass rush against Middle Tennessee State

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — You can count on one hand the number of quarterback sacks Iowa’s defense has generated through three games.

You can count on one finger how many have been credited to a starting defensive lineman.

The Hawkeyes are very aware of this statistic.

“Our pass rush is not where we want it to be,” sophomore defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon said. “We need to get more hits on the quarterback, more pass breakups, tipped balls. Just affecting the throw of the quarterback in any way we can. We feel like if we get that, our games will be a lot easier for us.”

No. 14 Iowa (3-0, 1-0 Big Ten Conference) will next set its sights on elusive Middle Tennessee State quarterback Asher O’Hara at 11 a.m. Saturday (ESPN2). O’Hara, a daring sophomore, has passed for 785 yards and rushed for 202 more in the Blue Raiders’ 1-2 start. He has also been sacked nine times, including six by Duke in his last game.

“He likes to jump over people,” Nixon said of O’Hara. “He likes to just run and move and prolong plays.”

The Hawkeyes are coming off an 18-17 victory over Iowa State in which they contended with a quarterback with a similar style. The Cyclones’ Brock Purdy passed for 276 yards and ran for 34 more, but was held in check as the game went along while Iowa rallied from a 14-6 deficit.

Iowa defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon (54) and defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) try to get to Miami (Ohio) quarterback Brett Gabbert in an Aug. 31 game. The Hawkeyes have only three sacks through three games, and are working hard to rectify that with Middle Tennessee State up next.

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker started sending more blitzing linebackers at Purdy. It was a disruptive mission accomplished.

“We’re not just standing ducks out there,” Iowa weakside linebacker Djimon Colbert said. “We’re coming from different angles and giving quarterbacks different looks, so it’s been a good thing.”

But there’s no question Iowa would prefer to pressure the quarterback solely with a veteran front four. Preseason All-American defensive end A.J. Epenesa has one sack while facing frequent double-teams. That was in Week 2 against Rutgers. He has another five quarterback hurries.

Opposite Epenesa, Chauncey Golston has been stout against the run, leading all Iowa defensive linemen with nine tackles. But he hasn’t been able to get his hands on a quarterback yet.

The Hawkeyes are down one starting defensive tackle after Brady Reiff suffered a knee injury. Nixon replaced him in the starting lineup alongside Cedrick Lattimore against Iowa State. Austin Schulte might get a chance to start for the first time Saturday.

Those three will play, but who else?

Iowa was expected to rotate eight or nine fresh bodies into its defensive line this year. It hasn’t happened yet. Maybe this is the week fans see more of guys like Zach VanValkenburg, John Waggoner and Noah Shannon.

“We have to keep growing guys,” Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Hopefully, we're developing those guys behind the scenes. That was a big part of last week, getting those guys more and trying to push them forward. We're going to need them all.”

Iowa is coming off the first of its two idle weeks to face Middle Tennessee State for the first time. It’s nothing but Big Ten Conference games after that, though, starting with a trip to Michigan on Oct. 5.

There’s a sense of urgency to start planting opposing quarterbacks into the ground more frequently. Iowa had 35 sacks a year ago, led by Epenesa’s 10.5.

“I still think those guys are getting a lot of pressure up front. They’re still making these quarterbacks have to move around in the pocket and push them out of their reads,” Colbert said of Iowa’s defensive front.

“I know those guys want those sacks, so maybe that’s going to make them hungrier coming out of this bye week.”

The Iowa defense, working to offset four injured players in the secondary, has been stellar, allowing only 10.3 points per game. But the players know the biggest tests lie ahead. Pass rushers like senior Amani Jones need to pull their weight.

The converted linebacker comes in to games at defensive end now when opponents are in long-yardage situations. He has one of Iowa’s three sacks. He’s eager for more.

“I have one job,” Jones said. “If you don’t do that one job, then why are you on the field? So it’s my job to rush the passer.”

It’s not his job alone. Nixon said the entire defensive line is putting in extra work to try to beat blockers in one-on-one situations. They’re seeing a lot of those with Epenesa drawing extra attention.

“Whenever we have free time, we go out and do pass-rush moves to up our time and tempo of the pass rushes,” Nixon said.

“We focus on our rush lanes with the quarterback and keeping him in the pocket and affecting the throws every week. Because it seems like every time we go against another team, they have a nice quarterback  that can either move out of the pocket and throw on the run or just run period.”


When: 11:05 a.m. Saturday

Where: Kinnick Stadium

TV: ESPN2 (Kevin Brown and Andre Ware)

Line: Hawkeyes by 23.5

Weather: Mostly cloudy and 63 degrees; 10 percent chance of rain. Wind from the northeast at 12 mph.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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