Quiet Josey Jewell making noise on Iowa's defense

Chad Leistikow

The Ryan Field sound guy probably had the Wildcat roar button at the ready.

Consecutive momentum plays had Northwestern ready to pounce in a battle of ranked teams. A touchdown pass cut Iowa’s lead to 16-7 Saturday, and then C.J. Beathard threw an interception. Suddenly, Northwestern was at Iowa’s 25.

What happened next: Iowa’s No. 43 roared into Northwestern’s backfield on a linebacker blitz. Running back Justin Jackson attempted to stop Josey Jewell, "attempted" being the key word. Even as Jackson engaged Jewell in a block, Iowa’s first-year middle linebacker clawed his way to quarterback Clayton Thorson, grabbed the front of his jersey and shoved him down for a 12-yard sack.

The sack was officially shared between Jewell and defensive end Nate Meier, but that play personified the change that Jewell has brought to Iowa’s 2015 defense. It swarms to the ball. It’s relentless. It has the ability to change momentum.

Jewell has difficulty talking about himself; his answers are short and all about the team. But fellow starting linebacker Cole Fisher has a lot to say about Jewell.

“I could see it back in camp last year,” Fisher said of Jewell's 2015 breakthrough. “You watch him running around the field, this kid’s going to be good. He just finds the ball. He’s a play-maker.”

Northwestern would be held to a field goal on that drive. It didn’t score again.

Jewell was a key piece in the restructuring of Iowa’s defense, which ranks fourth nationally against the run and 10th in points allowed.

For most of 2014, Jewell was behind or sharing time with Reggie Spearman at weak-side linebacker. But in late October, Spearman got busted for OWI and was suspended for two games. That opened the door for Jewell to get more game action, and he recorded 44 tackles in Iowa’s final six games — including 14 in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

Six days after the season, Jewell was named Iowa’s starting middle linebacker on the now-famous Jan. 8 depth chart. Spearman wound up transferring to Illinois State, where he’s since been kicked off the team.

Jewell, a Decorah product who got an 11th-hour scholarship offer from Iowa in its Class of 2013, just needed a little time and opportunity.

“Last year he was splitting time with Reggie. He was a young guy, you make mental mistakes, stuff happens,” said Fisher, a fifth-year senior who is an upset story himself and has led Iowa in tackles in five of seven games. “But this year has really upped his game, really cut out all the mental stuff.”

Fisher, by the way, has been equally essential to the revamped Hawkeye defense, which needed a new look after allowing 168.3 rushing yards a game in 2014 — the highest Iowa opponent average since 2000. This year, that figure is 74.1 — which is on pace to break the school record of 79.7 set in 1981.

Fisher leads Iowa with 61 tackles; Jewell is second with 56. Jewell also had an interception-return touchdown vs. North Texas, and it was his heady fumble recovery late against Illinois that helped seal that 29-20 win.

Jewell credits coaching adjustments, not himself, for his (and Iowa’s) salty 2015 defense.

“Just making a couple adjustments here and there,” Jewell said. “Coaches have putting us in the right spot, and then we’ve all been jelling together.”

Up next for Hawkeyes

Matchup: No. 12 Iowa (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten) vs. Maryland (2-4, 0-2)

When, where: Oct. 31, Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., ABC (regional, including in Iowa), ESPN2 (otherwise)