Rick Brown: Purdue win was all about the firemen
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – As he walked off the field at Ross-Ade Stadium Saturday, Iowa assistant coach Reese Morgan was short on happy talk.
"We've got a lot of work to do," Morgan said of the defensive linemen he coaches.
I understand that the glass is always half empty if you're a coach.
No offense, Reese, but Saturday was pretty impressive.
I know, I know — it was only Purdue. A team that hasn't won a Big Ten game since 2012. A team looking for some traction under second-year coach Darrell Hazell. A team that had just 36,603 fans show up for a homecoming game.
But Iowa's defense owned the Boilermakers Saturday in a 24-10 victory. When the offense struggled out of the gate, and quarterback C.J. Beathard borrowed a page from Ricky Stanzi (version 2009) with a quick pick six, it was the defense that kept this Big Ten opener afloat.
The firefighters put out any spark the Boilermakers could muster. And there weren't many of them.
"Coach (Phil) Parker calls us the firefighters," tackle Carl Davis said of Iowa's defensive coordinator. "We went in and did our jobs."
Purdue gained a total of 56 yards on its first two drives of the game, 100 on its last 12. Quarterback Danny Etling was under constant pressure, and sacked four times. That matched the number of first downs the Boilermakers had the entire second half.
Purdue's 156 yards of total offense were the fewest allowed by an Iowa defense in 39 games, going back to Ball State in 2010 (112 yards). Michigan had 158 last year, and Minnesota 165.
The Boilermakers' 72 yards passing were the sixth-fewest allowed in the 16 seasons Kirk Ferentz has been Iowa's coach.
"I think we did a pretty good job of getting pressure on the quarterback," defensive end Drew Ott said. "And the secondary did a pretty good job of bottling up the wide receivers."
The key to Iowa's improved defense came after a decision made by Ferentz and his staff following a humbling loss to Iowa State on Sept. 13. The Cyclones flipped a 14-3 halftime deficit by scoring 17 second-half points on Iowa's defense.
Iowa's coaching staff decided to rotate the front four more often than it had in the first three weeks. That front four of tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat and ends Ott and Nate Meier now share time with Mike Hardy, Jaleel Johnson, Faith Ekakitie and Nathan Bazata.
It worked in the second half at Pittsburgh last week, when Iowa rallied from a 17-7 halftime deficit to win, 24-20. And it helped after Iowa stepped in a 10-0 hole Saturday.
"We made the decision a couple of weeks ago that we had to start playing more guys," Ferentz said. "First and foremost, it's good for our older guys. You can't do it at the expense of winning ballgames."
The linebackers are rotating more than they did earlier, too. Six of them played Saturday. So did six different guys in the secondary. That's 20 players total, defensive line included, getting snaps.
"It keeps our guys fresh and gives us a better chance," Ferentz said.
Iowa strong safety John Lowdermilk, who had two fourth-quarter interceptions Saturday, said the growing depth in the defensive line helps all 11 players on the field.
"It helps a ton," Lowdermilk said. "The quarterback has to get the ball out quick. I thought the secondary played pretty well today. Overall, we played good team defense."
Davis said he's in good enough shape to go the distance in any game.
"But those guys, they deserve to play," Davis said. "I appreciate it. I can take a few series off. The other guys get experience for the future."
On Saturday, Iowa's defense carried the offense on its shoulders.
Seven regular-season games remain after next week's bye. If Iowa wants to contend with Wisconsin and Nebraska for the Western Division title in the Big Ten, the offense is going to have to pick it up. Right now, they're riding the coattails of the defense.
And the defense can always get better, too. Reese Morgan knows that. So does Phil Parker. There will be plenty of fires to put out the rest of the way.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.