Defense to seal Iowa's Black Friday fate in 12-0 quest

Chad Leistikow

LINCOLN, Neb. — Completing an unbeaten regular season hangs on Iowa’s suddenly suspect defense.

If those 11 guys step up in Friday’s 2:30 p.m., nationally-televised showdown against Nebraska, the third-ranked Hawkeyes will complete a historic 12-0 regular-season run, with a one-game shot at the College Football Playoff coming eight days later.

The 5-6 Cornhuskers average 33.6 points a game. Iowa’s ambitious plan is to hold them to half of that.

“Our design is to keep people under 17 points,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “And if we do that, then we're really happy — however it gets done.”

The way Iowa’s offense behind C.J. Beathard has been playing of late — 29 or more points in six consecutive Big Ten Conference games — 17 should be a winning number.

But can this defense pull it together? Iowa was downright salty through an 8-0 start, but the last three games (Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue) have generated concern.

The first eight: Iowa allowed 286.3 yards a game, 15.3 points and one total rushing touchdown.

Iowa defenders swarm Purdue's Domonique Young during the Hawkeyes' 40-20 win at Kinnick Stadium.

The last three: 415.3 yards, 27.3 points, six rushing scores.

Scheme problems, facing hot quarterbacks and miscommunication have contributed to the decline. So has fatigue, to which Ferentz answered last week: “Suck it up. We'll rest later on.”

The big focus for Iowa’s defense going into Friday's Heroes Game is minimizing big plays, something that haunted the Hawkeyes in last year’s 37-34 overtime loss in Iowa City.

“That’s been an emphasis going back to camp and spring ball,” said cornerback Greg Mabin, who was beaten by receiver Kenny Bell on the final play of last year’s game for Tommy Armstrong’s fourth touchdown pass. “We did that pretty good through the first (eight) games of the season, but more so lately we’ve been giving up those big plays, and that’s led to more points.”

Armstrong is the biggest threat to hurt the Hawkeyes again. He ranks No. 2 in the Big Ten Conference in total offense at 283.8 yards per game.

How to defeat him and the Huskers? Therein lies the key to unlocking a Hawkeye victory.

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Avoiding the high-speed crash

During an hour of player interviews Tuesday, an interesting nugget emerged: Iowa’s home crowd noise at Kinnick Stadium caused defensive confusion the past two weeks.

Cornerback Desmond King said there have been times when one side of the secondary was in one coverage, and the other was in another.

“It kind of messes up the whole defense,” King said. “That’s where the big plays come in. ... It gets really loud out there, I’m not going to lie.”

Wouldn’t crowd noise become even more of an issue in front of 90,000, mostly red-clad fans at Memorial Stadium?

“Actually on away games, we can hear each other communicate,” safety Jordan Lomax said, “because they won’t be yelling trying to distract their offense.”

The Hawkeyes have given up 14 plays of 20 yards or more in the last three weeks. That’s 4.7 per game, compared with 3.3 the first eight weeks. Linebacker Cole Fisher said after the 40-20 win over Purdue that there were issues “in the back end” but that they were correctable.

The defensive backs say they’ve worked on communication using hand signals during practice this week. Surely Nebraska — coming off its bye week with 12 days to prepare vs. Iowa’s five — noticed on film that the Hawkeyes' defense has been more vulnerable in up-tempo situations.

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The goal for Iowa is to get out to an early lead, which has been customary, considering it hasn’t trailed in the second half of any Big Ten game this year.

“We’re going to communicate better if the crowd is not in the game,” King said. “If it’s a fast-tempo offense, that’s where it’s going to be a little difficult for us.”

Armstrong brings a different kind of tempo — an ability to extend plays. That allows the 6-foot-1, 220-pound junior to find star receiver Jordan Westerkamp on improvised routes. Those types of broken plays burned Iowa a year ago. Pained Hawkeye fans probably tried to forget Armstrong rolling right and hitting Taariq Allen, who crept behind four confused Hawkeye defenders, for a 34-yard touchdown to cut into Iowa's 24-7, late-third-quarter lead.

“When he improvises and gets out — in the last play of the game last year, we let him out of the pocket and we paid for it,” Ferentz said. “That's usually not a good thing, and he makes good decisions when he gets outside.”

So ... get pressure on Armstrong, right?

Easier said than done. Iowa ranks last in the Big Ten in tackles for loss (4.7 a game); Nebraska leads the league in fewest sacks allowed (1.2 a game). The Hawkeyes have lacked pressure with their four-man defensive front, especially since defensive end Drew Ott tore an ACL on Oct. 10.

Buckle up.

A lot of unfinished business

The Hawkeyes have already clinched the outright Big Ten West title, so they’re locked into a spot in the conference title game. Nebraska is fighting for bowl eligibility.

But there’s no looking ahead. Nebraska 37, Iowa 34 still leaves a mark in Iowa City one year later.

“They earned it last year,” offensive lineman Cole Croston said. “We’re looking forward to getting them this year.”

The defensive challenge blocking Iowa's path to 12-0 has been detailed. The oddsmakers say this one’s a virtual toss-up. But let’s not forget the offense (averaging 34.2 points a game) and overall intangibles that have fueled the Hawkeyes' perfect 11-game run.

Iowa hasn’t lost the turnover margin in any game during Big Ten play. The offense has converted 34 of 48 red-zone trips with touchdowns, with only one turnover. A year ago in the season finale alone, then-quarterback Jake Rudock committed two turnovers inside Nebraska’s 10-yard line.

“We’ve done a really good job understanding every Big Ten game of the season is going to be hard-fought,” Iowa center Austin Blythe said. “It’s going to go down to all four quarters.”

Iowa’s 2015 season has been about finishing. To get this far and wind up 11-1 wouldn’t be acceptable, given the effort spent.

“It’s either we win or we lose. For us, winning is everything,” running back Jordan Canzeri said. “To lose would just take it all away from us for what we want to accomplish.”

Canzeri had a key 37-yard, fourth-quarter run in Iowa’s last trip to Lincoln in 2013. Iowa won that game behind a phenomenal defensive performance from senior linebackers Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey and James Morris. The score: Hawkeyes 38, Huskers 17.

There’s that magic number — 17 points allowed. Which of the last two Iowa defensive histories will repeat itself on Black Friday?

The nation, and the College Football Playoff committee, will be curiously watching.

“We didn’t finish last year. We’ve done a good job of doing that so far this year,” Lomax said. “So it’s only right that we come out here and be able to finish this game.”


Matchup: No. 3 Iowa (11-0, 7-0 Big Ten) at Nebraska (5-6, 3-4)

When/where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb.

Time/TV: ABC (Announcers: Adam Amin, Kelly Stouffer)

The line: Iowa by 2

Weather: Cloudy and windy, with temperatures in the high 20s.