Leistikow: As game week arrives, Hawkeyes ready to lean on Phil Parker's defensive plan

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

With Iowa’s football opener just days away, it would be natural to have butterflies as a fan or as a player, particularly considering the degree of difficulty with 17th-ranked Indiana coming to town.

But there’s a good reason to feel confident and calm about the Hawkeyes’ readiness for Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. kickoff at Kinnick Stadium.

Because Phil Parker has a plan.

Parker was generally relaxed during preseason training camp, at least according to the Hawkeyes who play for the longtime and oft-agitated defensive coordinator.

“That’s the vibe I’ve been getting from him. We’ve been doing well in practice,” senior cornerback Riley Moss says. “It helps that we played last season together.”

Phil Parker's defenses have held 22 consecutive opponents to 24 or fewer points, the longest active streak in the FBS.

That veteran presence is one of the reasons Parker has confidence that things won’t go haywire on his side of the ball in the opener or this season. He sees the tone set in practice every day from guys like Matt Hankins, Kaevon Merriweather and Jack Koerner in the secondary and Jack Campbell and Seth Benson at linebacker.

Related:Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker set to become state's first $1 million assistant coach

Listening back to my interview with Parker on the Hawkeyes’ media day Aug. 13, here were some of the snippets that jumped out about his defense.

“These guys are really close-knit. They know what’s going on.”

“It’s not very hard to keep these guys motivated. They’re motivating themselves.”

“Guys are running meetings themselves. They want to be good, and they’re working hard to do it.”

Again, this is coming from a veteran defensive coach who's rarely content. Having two starting linebackers and all five defensive backs return from a top-10 unit nationally has kept Parker at ease that things will be pretty buttoned up, that assignments won't be blown. 

So, it makes sense to shoulder Iowa's season opener on the defense.

Because Phil Parker has a plan.

Consider that in the last five season openers that took place at Kinnick Stadium (2015 through 2019), Iowa’s defense has set the tone to the season by doing this in the first halves:

  • Allowed three scoring drives out of 28 possessions.
  • Yielded an average of 3.6 points while forcing 14 punts and three turnovers.
  • Held those five opponents to an average of 126.8 total yards.

Granted, none of those Kinnick visitors were Power Five programs — but recall that the Hawkeyes suffocated Josh Allen-led Wyoming in a 24-3 win on Sept. 2, 2017. Allen is now among the top five quarterbacks in the NFL.

Countdown to kickoff:What to know about the Iowa Hawkeyes' 2021 football schedule

Indiana certainly is a different animal. The Hoosiers come to Kinnick with playmakers at quarterback (Michael Penix is a full go after ACL surgery), running back (five-star USC transfer Stephen Carr is getting the start) and out wide (Ty Fryfogle is the Big Ten’s reigning wide receiver of the year).

"They have some ballers on their side," junior defensive back Dane Belton says. "We’re going to have to come to play."

With Iowa having such a veteran defense, players haven't had to worry as much about basic fundamentals or concepts. So, they've been looking at Indiana film for weeks. Hankins said that during camp, defensive players were given the option of going back to the team hotel (a walk across Melrose Avenue this year) or going to the team building to watch more film.

He said players overwhelmingly were hunkering down in the film room, with a desire to go from good to great.

“Everybody’s locked in mentally, physically," Hankins says. "It’s a great group of guys."

More:Iowa football releases depth chart ahead of 2021 season opener against Indiana

A remarkable streak will be put to the test Saturday. Iowa hasn't allowed any opponent to surpass 24 points in 22 consecutive games. No other FBS team has an active streak longer than 10.

Before Penix's knee injury last year, Indiana scored 35-plus points in four of five games and averaged 34.0 under his direction. Getting to 23 straight games won't be easy. Oddsmakers have respect for Iowa's defense, putting Indiana's over/under point total Saturday at 21.5.

But one of the reasons that No. 18 Iowa's status as a 4½-point favorite for Week 1 has slipped to a 3-point edge is because there's a growing realization that the Hoosiers are really good. They were a trendy talking point during Saturday’s pregame shows as a team that could challenge Ohio State in the Big Ten East.

More:Here are seven reasons why Iowa Hawkeyes football can win the Big Ten

Still, Merriweather says that given Iowa's experience, “we expect to be a top-10, top-five defense" nationally. Iowa's defense was No. 6 in FBS a year ago in scoring (16.0 points a game), No. 8 in yardage (313.8 per game) and No. 1 in yards per play (4.34).

There's a lot of calm before the storm in Iowa City this week.

Because Phil Parker has a plan.

"I’m sure his wife’s happy that we’re calming him down," Moss says. "We’ve been working hard, and we’re just excited to get out and play Indiana and have fans in the stands."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.