Leistikow: A resourceful Hawkeye defense saves the day again
IOWA CITY, Ia. — While waiting for his Iowa defense to get back on the field as Illinois called back-to-back timeouts with 16 seconds left in the first half, coordinator Phil Parker decided to give the green light to something the Hawkeyes had been practicing for more than a year.
And Geno Stone was ready.
An all-out blitz, with the safety — Stone — charging into the backfield for the first sack of his three-year Hawkeye career
“He finally used it,” Stone beamed, reliving his takedown of helpless Illini quarterback Brandon Peters for a 14-yard loss on fourth-and-6 that gave Iowa the ball with 12 seconds left. “… It was pretty cool to call it. I’ve been waiting for it all year.”
A sack to end Iowa’s defensive first half, which led to an important Hawkeye field goal.
And then, a sack to end the game — as linebacker Kristian Welch’s collection of backup Matt Robinson for a 6-yard loss punctuated the 20th-ranked Hawkeyes’ 19-10 victory before 58,331 fans at Kinnick Stadium.
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Although it’s hard to wrap words around what makes this Iowa defense so effective on the scoreboard, perhaps it’s that imagery of the first and second halves: The opposing quarterback trying to make a final play but ending up on the ground.
“Bend, don’t break. Don’t ask who started the fire, just put it out,” said Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa, reciting some of the slogans used by the Hawkeye defense. “That’s what we live by.”
Iowa has allowed 767 yards over the past two weeks at Kinnick, but keeping Minnesota and Illinois to 29 points combined has resulted in two hard-fought wins.
When the defense needs to make a play this season, it has come through, more often than not.
And, hey, sometimes that means the defensive coordinator needs to brush the cobwebs off a seldom-used blitz.
Of all people, maybe Iowa's quarterback described the dynamic the best. Nate Stanley offered his perspective from an offense that didn’t score a touchdown after its opening possession.
“It’s kind of like a pitcher in baseball. When he doesn’t have his best stuff, the defense behind him, they’re going to try to make plays for him,” Stanley said. “That’s the same for us.”
Other than Epenesa, who everyone projects as a first-round NFL Draft pick, there probably won’t be a first-team all-Big Ten Conference player on the Iowa defense. The bodies have shifted all season. There have been injuries. And I can count four starters that Parker has benched — including one Saturday — based on poor performance.
Yet this defense adapts, just as it did after Donny Navarro's way-too-easy 31-yard touchdown midway through the first quarter.
“You saw today, we had to make adjustments. They‘d make plays," said Welch, who logged a career-high 12 tackles. "And that’s all part of it. Just rolling with it and have the pressure on you and enjoy that pressure and continue to perform.”
Speaking of pressure: On Illinois' six plays inside Iowa’s 30-yard line, it netted five yards with an interception — with Matt Hankins plucking Peters’ end-zone toss for a touchback as the Illini tried for a go-ahead score early in the third quarter.
The next drive, Illinois reached Iowa’s 29 before Stone stoned Navarro for a 3-yard loss on a screen pass. Then Epenesa engulfed Dre Brown for a 4-yard loss. Two plays later, a field goal was missed.
Plenty of yards. No points.
That stinginess stems from practice.
“You guys don’t see it," Epenesa said, "but the way we practice … we’re tackling, we’re hitting, we’re moving, we’re flying around and playing hard.”
With Iowa clinging to a 16-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter, it was Welch who poked away the ball from Peters, and Jack Koerner recovered.
Welch said he had envisioned that exact play occurring, after watching how Michigan State forced a turnover in a similar fashion.
That’s a dedicated senior player making a play off film study and grit.
“Top to bottom, (we) have guys that are willing to make plays and sacrifice your body for the rest of the guys that are on the field," Welch said. "We talk about that a lot. I’m fighting for the guy next to me. That’s kind of our mentality.”
The notion of sacrifice applied to another Hawkeye senior Saturday.
Michael Ojemudia wasn’t sure he could play as he battled a painful foot injury, but he gave it a go.
He lived up to a challenge given to him by Saturday’s honorary captain, Desmond King: Go get an interception. Ojemudia picked off Peters on Illinois’ third snap of the game, contributing to a plus-2 turnover margin against an Illinois team that led the country in turnover margin.
“For senior day, I really wanted to push myself to be able to play, no matter how much it hurts, no matter how I’m feeling,” Ojemudia said afterward. “I’m proud of myself for playing this game.”
And now Iowa is within a few games of statistical history.
The Hawkeyes are allowing 12.2 points a game, with a trip to Nebraska and a bowl game to go. If it stands, that average would mark the lowest of the Kirk Ferentz era, eclipsing the benchmark of 13.0 posted by the 2008 defense.
Ferentz, like the rest of us, had a hard time articulating this Hawkeye defense that is pursuing greatness but lacking in dominance. As his answer rambled, he spoke about a 2004 defensive line that all went to the NFL.
This defense is different. But it has found a way to 8-3.
“These guys work at it. They're really together. They prepare. And they just all kind of know what to do and where to be,” Ferentz said. “And then every now and then, we'll come up with some big plays.
“For me personally, that's kind of been the interesting part watching them work.”
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.