Leistikow: Swarming defense is ready to put the Hawkeyes' season on its shoulders

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

EVANSTON, Ill. — It’s still too early to know where this Iowa football season will ultimately go. But if it does take a special turn in November, perhaps a moment in late October will be credited for putting the 2019 Hawkeyes on a new path.

That moment occurred early Tuesday morning at a practice at Iowa’s Hansen Football Performance Center. Cornerback Matt Hankins — who last week got benched in the third quarter against Purdue — delivered what teammates described as a big hit on scout-teamer Samson Evans.

“First play of the practice,” safety Jack Koerner reported. “It got everybody pumped up.”

Brady Reiff corroborated the impact, saying Hankins’ play launched defensive players into an increased tempo for the week to come.

After a 20-0 win, Iowa players took time to acknowledge the Hawkeyes' fans that made their way to rainy Ryan Field on Saturday.

“That practice got loud after that,” the senior defensive tackle said. “Everyone started flying around.”

And the attacking Hawkeyes that were on the practice fields in Iowa City made their way confidently and safely to Ryan Field near the shores of Lake Michigan. Junior defensive end Chauncey Golston said the Hawkeyes started thinking shutout “before we even got off the bus.”

And the Hawkeyes’ defense delivered.

No. 19 Iowa’s 20-0 blanking of Northwestern, which snapped a three-game series losing streak, served as a statement that this Hawkeye defense is ready to put this season on its shoulders.

This was the fourth Iowa shutout in its past 11 Big Ten Conference games.

This was the first time Northwestern has been shut out at home since 1999.

This was impressive.

While so much outside attention has been focused on the Hawkeyes’ touchdown-challenged offense, the inspiration on the inside is coming from defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s side of the football.

Koerner called Iowa’s Tuesday and Wednesday practices the two best he’s seen in three years at Iowa.

“Everybody just started feeding off it,” the redshirt sophomore said. “The next thing we knew, we had energy on every play.”

Senior cornerback Michael Ojemudia couldn’t remember a more physical game-week of practices, a message that stemmed from Parker — knowing the Hawkeyes have an idle week ahead of the Nov. 9 showdown at Wisconsin.

What makes Hankins’ practice play more important is that he was the proud junior who had a humbling experience during Iowa’s 26-20 win against Purdue. A veteran cornerback had trouble containing a Boilermakers freshman. He was yanked in the middle of a series … and did not return.

It was a legit question that he might’ve lost his job to Riley Moss. But there was No. 8 on Saturday, starting and playing a fantastic full game. Hankins' personal redemption served as a ripple effect to the entire defense, which allowed a season-high 20 points last week.

The poor Hawkeye scout team paid the price.

“The scout (teamers) weren’t having that great of a time,” Reiff grinned. “But we were having a great time.”

That turbo-charged tempo from this week’s practice?

“That,” junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa said, “should be the new standard.”

So, if you were a little miffed that Iowa’s head coach has morphed from New Kirk back to Conservative Kirk … maybe the stories from this week's practices provide more context.

Ferentz took a delay of game on fourth-and-1 from Northwestern’s 45-yard line late in the first half … in order to punt. An ultra-safe decision, sure.

But he knew a 10-0 lead was more like 100-0 with the way his defense was playing. Northwestern had 70 first-half yards and 202 for the game.

“Whatever it takes to win the game that day,” Ferentz said, “that’s what’s important.”

Pat Fitzgerald, in contrast to Ferentz, went for it four times on fourth down Saturday — desperate for any opportunity to crack Iowa's defense. He went 0-for-4.

Ferentz made a later point in his postgame press conference: If you’ve got a good defense, you’ve got a chance.

Iowa’s defense heads to November allowing 10.1 points per game. The 20-year Ferentz-era standard is 13.0, established in 2008.  

“It’s just me. But if you can only choose one thing, you start on defense. Any sport,” Ferentz said. “If you can play defense, you’ve got a chance to win games. I’m OK with that. And I’m OK if we score points, too."

Oh, and I’ll say it: The much-maligned offense did OK, too.

No turnovers. Quarterback Nate Stanley connected on three big plays to Northwestern’s zero. The run game showed enough bite (38 carries for 126 yards, if you remove an 11-yard sack and 12-yard kneel-down) to churn out scoring drives of 15, 13 and nine plays.

The Hawkeyes are 6-2, 3-2 in the Big Ten entering their defining November stretch.

They haven’t let back-to-back, one-score losses to Michigan and Penn State define them. Not yet, anyway.

We’ve been searching all season for Iowa’s identity.

Saturday, we found it.

It’s the defense.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.