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Iowa's defensive line hopes Saturday's showing is sign of more disruption to come

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — For the first time this season, Iowa’s defensive front made an opposing quarterback jittery Saturday.

That’s not an official statistic, of course. The Hawkeyes were credited with only two sacks of Michigan State’s Rocky Lombardi in a 49-7 win at Kinnick Stadium.

But there were five quarterback hurries. Three interceptions. Another 21 passes that fell harmlessly to the turf, many of those well off-target.

“We’ve been trying to establish our identity,” Iowa senior defensive end Chauncey Golston said after breaking through with 1.5 sacks Saturday. “We knew that if we got pressure, if we stopped the run, then we could do what we enjoy doing. And that’s rush the passer.”

Earlier:Chauncey Golston shows his value as Iowa's 'other' defensive end

Iowa’s defensive line was mainly a non-factor in the season-opening 24-20 loss at Purdue. Northwestern generally controlled the line of scrimmage in a 21-20 win in Week 2.

On Saturday, the Hawkeyes got an early lead, stifled the Spartans’ run game (59 yards) and got after Lombardi. The goal always is to make an offense one-dimensional. In this case, it was no-dimensional.

Michigan State connected on two long pass plays, but nothing else worked.

Iowa left end Chauncey Golston hits Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi in the first quarter at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020.

Golston, the only returning starter on Iowa’s defensive line, said it was evident when watching film of Lombardi that he would flinch when facing pressure, and that caused him to throw his passes too high. That’s how it played out Saturday.

Defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon has been Iowa’s best pass-rusher, and he was terrific again. But this time, he had plenty of help. Golston had six tackles. Opposite him, Zach VanValkenburg came up with his best game in two seasons as a Hawkeye, with 1.5 tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry.

More:After two drama-filled years, Daviyon Nixon eager to make his Hawkeye debut

Backup end Joe Evans got his most extensive playing time, responding with his first three quarterback hurries of the year. His emergence will give Golston some needed rest. And that is vital, because Golston is Iowa’s best pass-rusher.

In addition, Iowa hopes to get senior defensive tackle Austin Schulte back this week, coach Kirk Ferentz said. That will be a needed fourth option in that rotation, along with Nixon, Jack Heflin and Noah Shannon.

All of this is just in time for Iowa to travel to Minnesota, where the Gophers have the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten West (109 points) and are also coming off their first victory of the season, 41-14 over Illinois.

The first task for Iowa’s defensive front will be trying to contain the best running back it will see this season in Mohamed Ibrahim. He has gained 571 yards in three games, averaging 5.9 per carry, with 10 touchdowns. There will be no need to worry about pressuring Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan if Ibrahim is gaining yards in chunks, the way Purdue’s Zander Horvath did against the Hawkeyes.

Morgan is 45-for-73 for 602 yards in three games, with three touchdowns and two interceptions. He has one great receiver in Rashod Bateman (24 catches, 302 yards), but little else this season. The Hawkeyes would love to make Morgan jittery, but they have to earn that chance by bottling up Ibrahim first.

“Failure is part of growth, but we're seeing improvement,” Ferentz said of his relatively inexperienced defensive line. “Guys are working hard, and when guys work hard, that's positive.

“It's got to be a group effort, so if everybody is moving forward, maybe we've got a chance to become a good team.”

Nixon leads Iowa’s defensive linemen with 21 tackles this season. Golston has 16. They will set the tone again Friday against Minnesota. Ferentz was encouraged by the production of the rest of his linemen against Michigan State. An eight-man rotation is ideal.

“We’ve been getting better week by week,” Golston said when asked about the development of Iowa’s defensive line.

“So I guess we’re building toward the last game.”

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