Miller: Iowa's 2015 defense ranks among some of Ferentz's best

Jon Miller
Special to Hawk Central
Jon Miller

Late Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker was an architect of football destruction.

The author of "Six Seconds of Hell," Parker's Iowa defenses were the true constant of the Kirk Ferentz era, prior to his retirement and 2014 death.

My favorite aspect of Norm’s genius was its simplicity.

I recall one game where Abdul Hodge was Iowa’s middle linebacker and he was looking over to Norm on the sidelines for the next defensive call.

Parker twirled his hands over top of one another in a spinning motion; Hodge got the message and relayed that to his teammates, who did not seemed surprised.

The unspoken signal meant "do the same thing again."  And again ... and again ... and again. Because it was working. It always seemed to work.

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This is what Iowa did when it was at its best; it stopped the run with its front-four defenders, which let its linebackers run free and basically took away the opponent's running game. You couldn’t get to the edge against Norm’s best defenses and if you were silly enough to try the option, you lost (see Georgia Tech, 2010).

On the back end, led by then-secondary coach Phil Parker, the Hawkeyes played mostly quarters zone coverage and they were good about keeping plays in front of them; they seldom beat themselves.

If you were going to beat Iowa, it was because your quarterback was patient and could lead his team on numerous drives of eight plays or more to score points.

The late Norm Parker, left, was the architect of an Iowa defensive strategy that still works for the Hawkeyes to this day.

Norm didn’t believe most college quarterbacks could do that. They weren’t patient enough, and they weren’t good enough. More often than not, Norm was correct.

But make no mistake: Norm’s best defenses were terrors against the run. That’s how you win Big Ten football games; run and stop the run when the winds of November come calling and bend-but-don't-break on defense.

The 2015 Hawkeyes, led by Phil Parker, were a lot like the best Iowa defenses of the Norm Parker era. In short, that meant they were a lot of fun to watch and difficult to run and score against.

Ferentz has seen five of his Iowa teams (2002, 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2015) win 10 or more games. Not surprisingly, those teams had five of the best Iowa defenses against the run and in terms of points per game allowed in the past quarter century.

Let’s take a look at where these defenses were similar.

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Former Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn was a huge part of Iowa's stellar 2009 defense. Clayborn was the 20th overall pick by Tampa Bay in the 2011 NFL Draft.

Here is how each defense fared against the run and that squad’s national ranking in rushing yards allowed per game:

  • 2002: 81.9 (5th)
  • 2003: 92.7 (8th)
  • 2004: 92.5 (5th)
  • 2009: 123.6 (34th)
  • 2015: 114.9 (9th)

While the 2009 unit lacked the complete and total dominance of the other four teams, they were 10th in the nation in total defense and 11th in the country in turnovers gained (30). That defensive line included future NFL players Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug. It also had Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds at linebacker. In short, five NFL talents in your front seven translates to getting the job done.

The 2002 Iowa defense is second only to the 1981 Iowa defense, who allowed just 79.7 yards against the run, which is the school record.

This year’s Iowa defense was a top-10 unit against the run. They shored up so many weaknesses from 2014, namely setting the edge on the outside and not allowing teams to turn the corner on them for big gains. When they struggled, it was against teams that ran zone-read option plays, giving the ball to running backs on the inside after the linebacker was frozen for a step to read the play. However, the damage was minimal as the defense had that old bend-don’t-break quality.

A few years ago, Parker Hesse (40) and Josey Jewell (43) were high school rivals in Northeast Iowa, but now the Iowa Hawkeye teammates are making a statement with a young Hawkeye defense, evidenced here as Hesse celebrates an interception return for a touchdown against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., on Friday, Nov. 27, 2015.

That shows up most in points per game allowed. You’ll see those numbers now, with Iowa’s national ranking to the right:

  • 2002: 19.7 (24th)
  • 2003: 16.2 (7th)
  • 2004: 17.6 (16th)
  • 2009: 15.4 (8th)
  • 2015: 18.5 (14th)

In this day and age of football, 18.5 points per game allowed is a great number, with so many offenses designed to run more plays, increase tempo and put up more points. Iowa remains a throwback — a beautiful throwback at that — when it’s playing disciplined assignment football.

The defense that Norm Parker designed and that Phil Parker has added to funnels the ball to areas on the field where help is readily available. This year’s defense has earned its own place in Hawkeye history as one of the most sound and competent units Iowa has fielded in the past 35 years.

As we know, they are not done yet. A formidable challenge awaits them in Pasadena, Calif., in the form of the Stanford Cardinal and Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey, who broke the NCAA mark for all-purpose yards with 3,496 this season.

The good news for Iowa is this will be a game fought in a phone booth; Stanford likes to play physical football at the point of attack and they are more like a Big Ten team than a traditional Pac-12 team. They prefer predictable power over fleeting speed, as that is what they can consistently recruit.

Sound familiar?

This is not to say they don’t possess athletes; McCaffrey is one of the best the game has seen. But this Iowa team is strong on defense where Stanford likes to live.

As a friend of mine likes to say, you have to pack a defense to win on the road. Though this will not be a true road game for Iowa, as there will be more Hawkeye faithful inside the Rose Bowl than Stanford supporters, Iowa will have a defense ... and a very good one at that.

Jon Miller is publisher of HawkeyeNation. He'll offer commentary on HawkCentral through the end of the football season. Follow Miller on Twitter at @HawkeyeNation.

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