Hawkeye football mailbag: Is Iowa's defensive line starting to wear down?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The Iowa defense may be facing its biggest challenge of the season Saturday, with unbeaten Minnesota bringing an offense into Kinnick Stadium that has scored at least 28 points in each of its nine games.

The defense has undoubtedly been leaned on heavily this year, but now it’s fair to wonder if it’s getting too heavy. Iowa buckled against Wisconsin, allowed 300 rushing yards and the most total yards (474) since September 2017, in a 24-22 loss.

How much gas is left in Iowa’s tank came up during Wednesday’s Hawk Central Facebook Live broadcast.

“We’re working to get back healthy,” defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore told me Tuesday. “Staying on top of treatments, if you’ve got a nagging injury or something. You’ve got to stay on top of it.”

iowa's defense has spent a lot of time on the field since the beginning of October.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz hates to talk about injuries to begin with. He definitely isn’t going to divulge which guys are playing hurt, other than his usual line that everyone this time of year is playing hurt.

Hawkeyes defensive line coaches Kelvin Bell and Jay Niemann ideally want to rotate eight to 10 bodies, to keep their top guys fresh. That worked last year beautifully, with starting defensive ends Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse finishing with snap counts in the mid-500s over 13 games (about 40 to 45 a game). That especially paid off in the Outback Bowl, as the Hawkeye defensive line was a game-wrecking catalyst in a 27-22 win against Mississippi State.

But looking at this year’s numbers, Iowa’s defensive ends are already at ideal 13-game workloads through nine contests. A.J. Epenesa, for example, has played 506 snaps of a possible 568 (89.1%). Chauncey Golston has played 494 (87.0%).

With Iowa’s offense struggling to stay on the field, the defensive workload has increased. After averaging 47.3 snaps in Iowa’s first four games (a 4-0 start), Epenesa is averaging 63.4 over the last five (Iowa is 2-3).

Epenesa and Golston combined for 14 sacks a year ago in reserve roles; this year, they have 6½ as heavily-used starters. That might be a reflection of guys playing hurt or guys wearing down ... or both.

The best way to help them stay fresh? Having the Iowa offense stay on the field … and scoring touchdowns instead of field goals (Hawk fans will love you anyway, Keith Duncan).

TOPIC: What does Kirk Ferentz mean by saying he’ll get “global” about Iowa’s offense after the season?

To be clear, the head coach wasn’t talking only about the offense after the Wisconsin loss. But, that’s obviously the area that seems to need the most soul-searching.

Ferentz showed after the 7-6 disappointment of 2014 that he is willing to make significant changes. What I think he means: That he’ll see if this train goes toward 10-3 or 7-6 before making that decision.

From my seat, the offense lacks identity. This is no longer a program that can justify hanging its hat on a run game that’s on the verge of averaging less than 4.0 yards a carry for the third straight year. Going philosophically toward a more mobile quarterback (not necessarily a run-first quarterback) would be worth strong consideration.

The staff needs to conclude, regardless of how the rest of the season goes, what it’ll take to outscore Wisconsin. And then push down that road.

TOPIC: Would 9-3 still be a successful season?

A fair question, with the Big Ten West title no longer realistic. But I would say yes, despite leaning no on this topic a month ago.

What changed? Iowa now has a prime opportunity to take down a top-10 team Saturday (Minnesota was No. 8 in Tuesday's College Football Playoff rankings). And Illinois, which will bring a four-game winning streak into Kinnick next week, is vastly improved. And winning at Nebraska is always satisfying.

Do those three things, and Iowa (No. 20 CFP) would end the regular season as a top-15 team with a chance at landing in the top 10 with a bowl win.

TOPIC: Does Iowa go 4-2-5 or 4-3 this week?

Given Minnesota has one of the best trio of receivers in the country (Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell have a combined 108 catches for 1,896 yards and 20 touchdowns), it’ll be a 4-2-5 day — as it was last year in Minneapolis.

On that note, one of the under-the-radar good stories is the play of true freshman Dane Belton at the cash position. He rarely seems to be out of position and is a good tackler.

TOPIC: Why is Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s production down?

Good eye. Arguably Iowa’s fastest player, Smith-Marsette has just 47 receiving yards over the past two weeks, and only one of his six grabs has topped eight yards.

The injury loss of top “X” receiver Brandon Smith has sent more attention Smith-Marsette’s way, and that’s opened things up for Tyrone Tracy Jr. (seven catches, 218 yards in two games).

Look for Nate Stanley to take a deep shot or two toward Smith-Marsette, a former Gophers commit, this week. Smith-Marsette caught a 60-yard touchdown pass in Iowa's 48-31 win last year at Minnesota.

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.