IOWA CITY, Ia. – Ben Niemann knows the challenge in front of him Saturday.
And behind him.
And to his left and right.
“I’m going to have to play well in space,” Iowa’s sophomore outside linebacker said. “I’ll have to cover some receivers on wheel routes and stuff like that.”
Niemann’s head will be on a swivel Saturday when the Hawkeyes visit Indiana. The up-tempo Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in total offense. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld’s arm and running back Jordan Howard’s legs will have the Hawkeyes in fire drill mode all game.
“They’re explosive,” Niemann said. "They can score a lot of points.”
Indiana averages 33.1 points and 467.6 yards a game. Playing well in space, and covering the edge defensively, are two areas of significant improvement for the Hawkeyes this season. Iowa didn’t distinguish itself in those areas last season, including a 45-29 victory over Indiana at Kinnick Stadium. The edge was an open invitation all afternoon.
Tevin Coleman rushed for 219 yards in just 15 carries, finding plenty of free space to the outside. He scored on touchdown runs of 83, 45 and 69 yards. Indiana rushed for 316 yards in 39 carries.
“It’s hard to be a good defensive football team when you give up a lot of big plays,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That game is the poster child for that. We gave up seven or eight of them. When you give up that many yards on the ground, it’s going to be tough to win ballgames.”
Iowa players and coaches are more focused on their upcoming game in Bloomington than the College Football Playoff rankings.
This Iowa team is allowing just 85.8 yards on the ground, which was about a carry and a half for Coleman last season. Howard, who used a bye week to get healthier after struggling with an ankle injury that knocked him out of two games, is averaging 131.2 yards a game.
This game will be a real test for Iowa’s ability to set the edge.
“We try to sell it every year,” Ferentz said. “It’s how it’s received, and how well we can execute it. The credit goes to the players. They’re doing a good job. Not perfect, but we’re doing a much better job than a year ago.”
One reason for that improvement is better play at linebacker. Senior Cole Fisher has been the surprise of the season defensively. Sophomores Niemann and Josey Jewell are a year older, stronger and wiser.
“From the beginning, we’ve honed in on the little things, doing things right,” Niemann said. “This group of guys is really hungry and trying to get better every day.”
Maturation and strength are just one part of this story. A different approach to coaching linebackers has helped, too. Last season, assistants Jim Reid and LeVar Woods both coached linebackers. Often, linebackers were split into two meeting rooms. This season, Ferentz switched Woods to tight ends, a very important position in Iowa’s scheme of things.
Reid has the linebackers to his own, and the 64-year-old is acting like the guys he coaches.
“He’s flying around,” Niemann said. “He acts like he’s 25 out there, running around and yelling and stuff. He really is high energy.”
It will take a high energy effort against Indiana’s offense on Saturday.
“Their tempo is probably going to be faster than anything we’ve seen so far,” Niemann said. “It’s probably the fastest offense in the Big Ten.”
And speed will kill an undefeated season if the Hawkeyes can’t set the edge.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.