Analysis: Defensive line leads the way for No. 14 Iowa over Middle Tennessee State

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Daviyon Nixon put pressure on himself to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks this week.

And on Saturday, Iowa’s sophomore defensive tackle made that happen. Nixon’s fourth game as a Hawkeye was his best.

It included:

  • Seven tackles. Five of them solo.
  • His first career sack, when he planted shifty Middle Tennessee State quarterback Asher O’Hara 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage to force one of the eight Blue Raiders’ punts.
  • Another 1.5 tackles for loss. This for an Iowa team that entered play with just six TFLs in its first three games.

No. 14 Iowa demolished Middle Tennessee State 48-3 on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. Nixon and the interior of the defensive line were as big of a reason as any.

“It takes some pressure off the defensive ends, and it was good to see them start to get a rush going. Because they’ve been working hard at it and they were able to finally successfully get it done. It looked good as a defense and I know those guys got excited about it, too,” said Iowa star defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who again was heavily double-teamed and finished with two tackles and one pass broken up.

“(Nixon)’s always got a smile on his face. He’s always happy and he’s always bouncing off the walls. Daviyon is one of those guys who can bring energy all the time.”

Iowa defensive lineman Cedrick Lattimore (95) sacks Middle Tennessee State quarterback Asher O'Hara (10) during a NCAA non conference football game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and Middle Tennessee State, Saturday, Sept., 28, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

Nixon brought it in bulk on Middle Tennessee State’s final drive of the first half. Iowa (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten Conference) was already leading 24-0, but the Blue Raiders were perched at the Hawkeye 41-yard line with a chance to feel good about themselves heading into intermission.

Nixon was having none of it.

First, he chased down Middle Tennessee State running back D.J. England-Chisolm for a 4-yard loss. Two plays later, Nixon got the first sack of his Hawkeye career, stonewalling O’Hara for an 8-yard loss.

There was an anxious moment first, however.

“It was funny because it was a flag on that play, so he was scared,” Iowa defensive end Chauncey Golston said with a laugh. “He was like, ‘Oh my God, don’t accept it.’”

Iowa declined the tripping penalty.  Nixon’s sack was officially in the books.

“It was like slow motion when it happened, to be honest,” Nixon said afterward. “We were just out there running one of our games that coach (Kelvin) Bell called and the quarterback, he’s so elusive and so fast and so trying to track him down and make sure you keep him in the pocket. On that play, we were able to and then I was just there to take it home for us. It felt good.”

Iowa defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore had earlier earned his first quarterback sack of the season, a 5-yard loss.

The Hawkeyes had only two through three games (a third “sack” was actually of an Iowa State wide receiver who was trying to throw a pass).

Doubling that total was just one sign of how much pressure Iowa was able to get on O’Hara, who passed for only 110 yards while rushing for just 33. That is less than half of his usual output.

The Blue Raiders (1-3) were also flagged three times for holding and once more for an illegal block.

The Hawkeyes used four defensive tackles in the opening three quarters, before the reserves kept pouring in. Junior Austin Schulte made his first career start with Brady Reiff out with a knee injury.

He contributed two tackles.

“I felt like I did my job every play I could,” Schulte said.

Redshirt freshman Noah Shannon saw his most extensive action and ended up with one tackle. Shannon, at 294 pounds, earned some respect from the 309-pound Nixon.

“I actually saw Noah move faster than I ever did in my life before,” Nixon said. “He was moving out there pretty quick. He did a really good job.”

At defensive end, junior transfer Zach VanValkenburg also saw his most snaps, giving Iowa a fourth option behind Epenesa, Golston and Amani Jones. VanValkenburg responded with three tackles.

Iowa linebacker Amani Jones (52) comes to the side of Barrington Wade (35) after an attempted punt block during a NCAA non conference football game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and Middle Tennessee State, Saturday, Sept., 28, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

This is what the Hawkeyes have been looking for from the front four: More pressure from the interior of the line; more bodies to deploy throughout.

They found it against a Middle Tennessee State team that they should have been able to push around. This was hardly the ultimate test for Iowa. But it was good timing with Big Ten play resuming next Saturday at Michigan.

Epenesa, a preseason all-American, was happy with what he saw Saturday.

“I have expectations of my other teammates to make plays whenever teams are doing a lot to just prevent me moving,” Epenesa said.

“I have expectations because they are good football players and they are able to make plays.”

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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