Hawkeye analysis: Deep, talented defensive line is becoming a terror, and that bodes well
EVANSTON, Ill. — That Iowa defensive line that was supposed to be a strength of the team this season?
It’s starting to bare its teeth now.
And it’s not just preseason all-American A.J. Epenesa. It’s 10 guys who were so relentless Saturday that Northwestern quarterback Aidan Smith had nowhere to run and barely saved his hide in a 20-0 Hawkeye victory at Ryan Field.
This wasn’t some fresh-faced offensive line that Iowa battered, either. The Wildcats may be 0-5 in Big Ten Conference play, but their five starters up front consist of three juniors and two seniors with an average weight of 302 pounds.
They were thoroughly whipped by Iowa. From beginning to end.
If the quarterback is the most important position on a football team, those who can harry the quarterback into mistakes have to rank second. And it’s perhaps the best sign for the Hawkeyes that they can compete for a Big Ten West title in November that their defensive front is starting to look like a terror.
It started with Northwestern’s opening series Saturday, when Iowa defensive tackle Brady Reiff tipped a Smith third-down pass and defensive end Chauncey Golston hauled it in for an interception.
“That’s all credit to Brady Reiff,” Golston said afterward. “It was an opportunity to get the offense on the field right now.
“That’s what defenses are for, trying to put the offense in the best position so they can score.”
Alas, Iowa’s offense didn’t score. At least not that time.
The defense went back to work. Golston raced to the sideline to trap Northwestern running back Isaiah Bowser a yard behind the line of scrimmage. Epenesa tracked down Smith from behind to stop him two yards short of a first down.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald decided to go for it on fourth-and-2 from Iowa’s 48-yard line. Big mistake. Golston snuffed that handoff to John Moten IV for another two-yard loss.
This time, Iowa scored on a 50-yard catch and run by Tyrone Tracy.
Northwestern couldn’t have known it, but the game was essentially over. There was no moving the football on Iowa’s defensive front on this soggy afternoon.
Joe Evans and Epenesa ended one Wildcat drive by combining for a sack, one of five for Iowa.
Defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore did the same, after Northwestern reached Iowa’s 35.
On fourth-and-4 from the Hawkeye 41, Lattimore dragged Smith down for no gain.
On fourth-and-9 from the Iowa 28, the farthest upfield Northwestern ever got, Evans bulled his way into the backfield and forced an incomplete pass.
On the Wildcats’ final possession, with only Hawkeye fans remaining to watch, the defensive line gave them a treat. Defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon sacked Smith twice in three dropback attempts. Then Evans buried him six yards behind the line of scrimmage. Northwestern conceded, punting the ball back to Iowa for the sixth time. Four other drives ended when the Wildcats turned the ball over on downs.
“That’s Iowa football. That’s what we pride ourselves in,” said Golston, who is emerging as a star in his first season as a starter. “We know games are going to be sticky, and we try to keep them sticky because we’ve been trained for that.”
The Hawkeyes held Northwestern to 64 yards on 35 rushing attempts Saturday. Defensive linemen were instrumental in that, and also contributed 24 tackles, five sacks, two-and-a-half tackles for loss, an interception, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry to the cause.
Evans, a walk-on redshirt freshman who starred at quarterback at Ames High School, has supplanted senior Amani Jones in Iowa’s pass-rushing package the past two weeks. And he’s shown why. He’s fast, strong and determined.
Reiff’s return from injury has helped anchor the interior of the line, where Lattimore and Nixon are also stalwarts. Austin Schulte and Noah Shannon also see time there. At end, Zach VanValkenburg and John Waggoner are getting some snaps and holding their own while Epenesa and Golston get an occasional breather.
That’s depth. And that’s game-changing talent, led still by Epenesa, who had four solo tackles Saturday.
He was pleased with what he saw from his front four. But only to a point.
“I wouldn’t say ‘dominated,’” Epenesa demurred when that word was used (accurately) to describe the play up front. “There’s a lot of things we could fix. But we played hard and we played well.”
They played like the unit many people expected to see this season. More days like this would certainly help make up for an offense that needs all the help it can get these days.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.