Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa had five tackles, including two sacks and a forced fumble, in a 13-3 win against Iowa State. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
IOWA CITY, Ia. — As the final minutes ticked off in Iowa’s latest victory against Iowa State, chants of “I-O-W-A!” continuously boomed from those wearing black and gold inside sold-out Kinnick Stadium.
Round and round it went, a repetitive reminder that this remained a Hawkeye State on Saturday.
Four great letters to hear if you're a Hawkeye fan. But they skipped over the letter of the day in Iowa’s 13-3 win. Because this one was all about the “D.”
It was a gem pitched by defensive coordinator Phil Parker against a future NFL running back in David Montgomery, a future NFL receiver in Hakeem Butler and a Cyclone program that — if you believe what you read — is in a better position than it’s ever been.
Even Parker, a difficult-to-please 20th-year Kirk Ferentz assistant, had to like what he saw from his defenders in this one.
“He’s grumpy. But he’s pretty happy (today). He couldn’t fake that in the fourth quarter when that one was over,” Ferentz said after winning his fourth straight against the Cyclones for the first time in his Hawkeye tenure. “That was a really good defensive effort.
“Obvious statement: If we play like that, we’ll have a chance against anybody. Because that group was playing pretty hard today.”
And that is how well Iowa played on defense Saturday night.
After a first drive in which the Cyclones looked like they would be able to move the ball at will, the Hawkeyes were relentless.
There was always someone — lots of someones, actually — rallying to the football.
Count up the Iowa State yards after contact Saturday, and it won't amount to much.
Iowa State, with all those weapons, gained a paltry 188 yards.
"Everyone did their job," said defensive end Parker Hesse, a Waukon native whose batted pass on fourth-and-1 in a 6-3 game in the third quarter was one of the day's many big defensive stops. "As we kept stopping them, we kept growing in confidence and playing a little more aggressive. It kept ramping up.”
Montgomery, who made the Hawkeyes looked foolish a year ago in Ames, was stifled Saturday. He rushed 17 times for 44 yards. Only 16 of those yards came after the first quarter.
Iowa senior defensive end Parker Hesse has his CyHawk game statistics down, and the Waukon native knows exactly what the game means to this state Mark Emmert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Until an inconsequential 23-yard reception on Iowa State's last possession, the 6-foot-6 Butler had two catches for 12 yards on nine targets against the Hawkeyes' inexperienced cornerbacks.
Iowa gave up 41 points a year ago in Ames; three on Saturday.
That’s zero touchdowns in two trips to Kinnick Stadium for Iowa State in the three-year Matt Campbell era, but this was an exponentially better Cyclone team than the one that lost here in 2016, 42-3.
“We were just laser-focused this time,” Iowa cornerback Matt Hankins said. “Mentally focused, mentally ready. Just had to defend Kinnick.”
What made it all the more remarkable was that Iowa used two first-time starters at inside linebacker who contained Montgomery like veterans.
The team's goal all game?
Get 11 hats to the ball.
“Get to the ball and gang-tackle. We just couldn’t let him bounce off one tackle and get 60 yards,“ said redshirt freshman Djimon Colbert after making a successful first start at weakside linebacker. “He is a great athlete, though. He had a couple times where tried to reverse field on us. I just think the whole swarm aspect to our defense really took away part of his game.”
Iowa defensive tackle Matt Nelson explains how the Hawkeyes held a good Iowa State offense to three points. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
The Hawkeyes certainly swarmed to the Cy-Hawk Trophy that was resting in the north end zone once this was over.
The defense earned the first crack at this one.
After the offense carried Iowa in last year’s 44-41 overtime victory, it was the defense’s turn.
In fact, the players seemed confident all week long.
Center Keegan Render said safety Jake Gervase gave the offense a real low bar to hit.
“He said, 'You guys score five points, we’ll hold them to three,'” Render relayed.
Never mind that an offense can’t actually score five. You get the point.
This defense was a confident, resilient group. Even after it looked dicey on that first drive.
Iowa State zipped down the field on its first possession; Kyle Kempt threw a 31-yard pass on the game’s second play. Iowa was getting gutted over the middle.
Quickly, Iowa State had first-and-goal from the Iowa 2.
That was the point that Iowa’s defense seemed to transition into what defensive tackle Matt Nelson called “firefighter” mode.
“We just never broke,” linebacker Nick Niemann said. “Even when they got down to the 1-yard line.”
Indeed, Iowa’s defensive line helped cause a false start on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
Five-yard penalty. Field goal. Three points.
This was hardly a banner day for Iowa’s offense. But the Hawkeyes scored enough when it counted to walk away from a difficult two-game starting schedule with a 2-0 record.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz discusses the profound growth of sophomore defensive end A.J. Epenesa. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
"We're thrilled to get the victory," Ferentz said. "It was hard-fought, and that's going to help us down the road."
That’s the important takeaway, really.
If the Hawkeyes have a shot at a Big Ten Conference championship, they've got to have a defense that competes with West Division favorite Wisconsin.
So far, so very good.
The Badgers come to town in two Saturdays. Get ready, Kinnick.
“It’s a good feeling. It makes you think if we get the offense going the right direction — which I think we are,” Iowa tight end Noah Fant said. “It’s going to be something that could possibly be pretty special.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.