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Analysis: Iowa defense kept Minnesota bottled up by following Phil Parker's game plan

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

MINNEAPOLIS — If you want to know how Iowa’s first-string defense shut out a Minnesota offense that produced 109 points in its first three games, here’s the blueprint:

  • Put the Gophers into a deep hole to begin each possession.
  • Prevent them from needing short gains in order to convert third downs.

The Hawkeyes took it to Minnesota from the outset of Friday’s 35-7 mismatch at TCF Bank Stadium, thanks to a defense that benefited from favorable field position and a flawless game plan.

Five Minnesota possessions started at or inside its 15-yard line, including a pair of Tory Taylor punts that pinned the Gophers at their 5. Taylor’s third punt was disappointing: It left the Gophers at their 11.

Taylor, the 23-year-old freshman from Australia, has quickly become the Hawkeye defense’s best friend. The spin he puts on a football leaves would-be returners so perplexed that whatever decision they make — whether to field it or let it bounce — is always the wrong one.

“He seems to be totally unfazed by the weather, unfazed by everything,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of Taylor’s performance on a 33-degree evening with 12 mph winds.

“His putting the other team in bad field position over the last two weeks has really factored into our success. It’s such a huge advantage if he can do that, to make a team have to work with a long field.”

Taylor was coming off a performance against Michigan State in which five of his seven punts landed inside the 20-yard line. As usual, he allowed no return yardage. Iowa won that game 49-7.

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker told his players this week that if they wanted to get in the picture, they needed to be where the football was. Defensive end Zach VanValkenburg found himself in many pictures, including this sack of Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan. Van Valkenburg had three sacks in a 35-7 Iowa win.

Still, field position means little if the defense surrenders big plays and long drives. Minnesota certainly has the athletes who can produce those, including Mohamed Ibrahim at running back and Rashod Bateman at wide receiver.

Hawkeye safety Jack Koerner said the gist of the defensive plan Friday was to keep Minnesota away from manageable distances on third down. That meant a concerted effort to wrap up Ibrahim, who was averaging 190 yards per game on the ground. That meant bracketing Bateman, a potential first-round NFL Draft pick, who is a master of finding openings on third downs. The Gophers converted 8 of 10 third downs a week ago in a 41-14 win at Illinois.

On Friday, the Hawkeyes made them work. Minnesota faced, on average, a third-and-7 when trying to pick up first downs against Iowa’s first-team defense (the Gophers didn’t get on the scoreboard until the final seconds against Hawkeye reserves). The Gophers went 4-for-13 in those instances, repeatedly stalling drives and leading to six ineffective punts (Mark Crawford is no Tory Taylor).

Here’s a telling example. Minnesota got its best field position of the evening after a James Gordon interception appeared to set things up in Iowa’s red zone. But the Gophers weren’t about to make things that easy on themselves. Instead, two personal foul penalties backed them up 30 yards, to their own 45-yard line, trailing just 7-0.

Minnesota picked up one first down when quarterback Tanner Morgan scrambled for 11 yards on a third-and-10 as the first quarter ended. But soon it was third-and-7 from Iowa’s 41-yard line. Morgan looked toward Bateman. Iowa made sure he was not open. Incomplete pass. Punt.

The Hawkeyes took a 14-0 lead immediately after.

Here’s one more. Minnesota did manage to drive from its own 5-yard line to Iowa’s 24 on a 17-play excursion that consumed nearly the entire third quarter. Two Ibrahim rushing attempts were turned back by a congested middle of the Hawkeye defense, Jack Heflin and Seth Benson making the stops.

That left the Gophers with a third-and-6. Coach P.J. Fleck called timeout to ponder an important moment in the game, with his team still down only 14-0. Ibrahim got the call again, and he headed right, toward the Hawkeye sideline. Chauncey Golston and Nick Niemann kept Ibrahim from being able to head upfield. The play lost a yard. Koerner blocked Minnesota’s attempt at a 39-yard field goal.

A Hawkeye victory was essentially assured.

Golston said Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker had a consistent message all week: “If you want to be in the picture, you’ve got to get to the ball. The picture’s going to be taken where the ball is.”

The Hawkeyes took that to heart.

Earlier:Personal touch: Iowa's Phil Parker nurtures talent on, off the field

Minnesota ran 73 plays and only two gained 20 yards or more, both second-half passes to Bateman. Six Hawkeyes had five tackles or more, including a three-sack performance by defensive end Zach VanValkenburg. It was a team effort, just as Parker wanted.

Afterward, a couple of Hawkeye defensive players groused about the second half, pointing out that Ibrahim got too many rushing yards (105 of his 144 total), that the effort on third downs wasn’t as strong (the Gophers converted their final four), that they lost their shutout bid.

More:New Hawkeye Zach VanValkenburg wants to test himself in the classroom and on the football field

Again, this is just echoing Parker, their perfectionist leader. Ibrahim needed 33 carries to get those yards, and none gained more than 13. The final three third-down conversions came against second- and third-string players.

Iowa’s defense dominated the evening. There’s no need to nitpick.

“Everybody just really came out with a hunger,” said Koerner, who intercepted a pass for a third consecutive game.

“I think it started in practice this week.”

Look at the photos from this game. You’ll see plenty of Hawkeye defenders swarming to the football. They each should get one framed, as a gift from Parker.

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.