Leistikow: In latest Cy-Hawk win, Iowa shows it's got the defense required for a special season

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

AMES, Ia. — When Jestin Jacobs jarred the football loose from all-American Iowa State running back Breece Hall on Saturday, just about every Iowa Hawkeye on Phil Parker’s defense was ready to pounce.

Watch the highlight again, if you get a chance. At the instance that Hall (from inside his own 10-yard line) fumbles the ball to his left, four other Hawkeyes are shown running with their eyes up and with full awareness of the opportunity at hand.

No surprise on this day, one of those four Hawkeyes was Jack Campbell. “A monster,” Jacobs would call him later in postgame Zoom interviews. The Hawkeyes’ difference-making middle linebacker in his first Cy-Hawk start scooped the bouncing ball at the 6-yard line. As he did, the four pursuing Hawkeyes in the camera frame had grown to eight.

Campbell completed the formality and dove into the end zone, and the celebration began on the way to 12th-ranked Iowa’s 27-17 win against No. 10 Iowa State at Jack Trice Stadium.

Yes, the scoop-and-score was the most significant turning point in a sixth straight Hawkeye win in this series — turning a tight game into a 21-10 lead with 5 minutes, 8 seconds left in the third quarter.

But more importantly, it was a reflection of what Iowa players say is making this defense so special … and why the ceiling remains high. They're all on the same page with great affection and trust for one another, something that Jacobs said helps all 11 guys play fast and free.

“When we were on that field, I felt like there was 11 defensive guys flying to that ball,” Campbell said. “That’s just the standard that we’ve set here, that coach Parker, coach (Seth) Wallace, coach (Kelvin) Bell, coach (Jay) Niemann, that they all hold us to.”

Those are Iowa’s four defensive coaches, and the work they and the Hawkeye defenders have done behind the scenes was on full display Saturday in a national-spotlight game with ESPN's College GameDay and its top broadcast crew on the call. Campbell and Jacobs and cornerback Matt Hankins spoke afterward about that “standard” that continues to be raised with seemingly each game. (That's now eight straight Hawkeye wins, dating to last season, with seven coming by double digits.)

In the opening act of 2021 against Indiana last week, cornerback Riley Moss had two interception-return touchdowns and Dane Belton added a third pickoff of heralded Hoosiers quarterback Michael Penix Jr. in a 34-6 rout.

Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell dives into the end zone after his third-quarter fumble recovery, which gave Iowa a 21-10 lead with 5:08 left in the period.

Saturday, the Iowa defense triggered four turnovers against the reigning Fiesta Bowl champs that brought everybody back — one on the Hall fumble, three on interceptions of 66.5% career passer Brock Purdy. The greatest quarterback in Cyclone football history was paralyzed by Parker’s defense for most of three quarters before being benched, finishing 13-for-27 for 138 yards.

It was hard to ignore the thumping that Campbell delivered to Purdy just as he released a first-quarter throw. Maybe Purdy was rattled on that incompletion, maybe it was just an indication of a tough day for the home team. But it certainly served as a statement by the Iowa defense early in this game that no yardage would be gained easily.

“You talk about physicality. That’s what you do at Iowa,” Campbell said.

To Jacobs, a young sophomore with supreme athleticism making his first big impact in a Hawkeye game, Campbell (eight tackles Saturday and his first career touchdown) embodies what the Iowa defense is doing and can do.

“He’s always going 100%. He always knows what he’s doing, and he’s always trying to bring other guys along,” Jacobs said. “When you have a guy like that on defense, we don’t really have a limit. Because he’s continuously pushing us. When you see him do that, you want to do it yourself.”

The season scorecard to date: Iowa has held two top-20 opponents to an average of 11.5 points per game, 286 yards per game and 4.3 yards per play — the same figure Iowa allowed a year ago in leading all FBS teams in that category — and forced seven turnovers.

Most remarkably, the Iowa defense has scored three touchdowns … and allowed two.

Pretty incredible. And, Hankins confidently said this pace can be sustained.

“We definitely can," said Hankins, who intercepted Purdy twice Saturday. (Seth Benson collected the other off a tipped ball by Ames native Joe Evans.) “It just comes down to film work, preparation and reading the keys. It’s not luck."

How far can this defense carry the Hawkeyes?

To Indianapolis.

That's not a prediction, but a spot in the Big Ten Conference championship game Dec. 4 at Lucas Oil Stadium is more firmly in Iowa's sights after two defensive gems like this.

Absolutely, the offense needs to get better and will need to pull its weight at some point. It will get better. These were two of the toughest defenses Iowa will play all season. And, remember, the goal in both games was to protect the football — something neither Hawkeye opponent could do.

Iowa (2-0 with two impressive wins) will almost certainly be the highest-ranked Big Ten team in the nation this week after Ohio State's home loss to Oregon. Iowa's schedule is manageable from here — Kent State and Colorado State the next two weeks at home before a tricky road trip to Maryland — but it'll have to play with great urgency every week, with a top-10 ranking target on its back.

Nothing will come easy for the Hawkeyes over the next 10 regular-season games.

But as Saturday proved, nothing will come easy against them, either.

“That’s just the standard we’ve set in trying to uphold … and trying to push the limits of how good a defense can be at the University of Iowa," Campbell said. "We made a couple of mistakes today. We’re going to fix them."

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.