Hawkeyes analysis: Iowa defense needs to get right — and quickly

Mark Emmert

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — It was a wince that was worth a thousand words.

Iowa middle linebacker Josey Jewell was reminded Saturday that his defense gave up only seven points but did allow 383 yards, to a Rutgers team that isn’t exactly heavy on star power. His face betrayed a sour expression for just a moment.

“It was definitely up and down,” Jewell said after the Hawkeyes escaped with a 14-7 victory at High Point Solutions Stadium. “We played team defense on multiple possessions, but then it came back to us where we played sloppy, didn’t communicate as well, didn’t have the gap schemes like we wanted to.”

Rutgers running back Justin Goodwin avoids a tackle attempt by Iowa defensive back Brandon Snyder during the second half Saturday. Iowa defeated Rutgers 14-7, but it was more gritty than pretty.

There was too much resemblance to last Saturday’s 23-21 loss against North Dakota State for Iowa’s defense. The Scarlet Knights rushed for 193 yards and put together an excruciating 13-play, 88-yard scoring drive to tie the score in the fourth quarter.

Even after star wide receiver Janarion Grant left late in the first half with an injury, Rutgers piled up 200 second-half yards. Quarterback Chris Laviano, whose only five completions in the first half went to Grant, threw for 64 yards and a score after intermission. He also badly overthrew two receivers who could have had touchdowns.

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Credit Iowa for hanging on to get a Big Ten Conference win on the road. The defense was stout when it mattered, snuffing out two fourth-down plays, keeping the Scarlet Knights off the scoreboard in three of four red-zone trips (they entered play 8-for-8 in that category) and coming up with the lone — and pivotal — turnover of the game when Brandon Snyder forced and recovered a fumble.

But the rushing yards allowed continue to be problematic. And the schedule gets markedly more difficult from here, with trips to Minnesota and Penn State and home games against No. 10 Wisconsin, No. 5 Michigan and No. 20 Nebraska up ahead. This bend-but-don’t-break rut the Hawkeyes are in won’t cut it much longer.

“The real issue is fundamentals,” Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We’ve had too many instances in my opinion where not everybody gets the call. We have little intricate calls that we make up front. That’s good unless everybody’s not on the same page and then you open up a seam and they hit a couple of those today.”

Rutgers quarterback Chris Laviano gets stuffed by Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell on Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, N.J.

Rutgers picked up 21 first downs, 13 of them on the ground, the identical numbers NDSU achieved last week. That’s despite the Scarlet Knights going 7-for-19 in third- and fourth-down conversions. They had 12 plays that picked up 10 or more yards.

Those were offset in some ways by four Hawkeye sacks, six forced punts and a goal-line stand late in the first half. But that’s a tough way to win ballgames.

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Jewell was right in the middle of that stand, as you would expect. Iowa stopped four Rutgers running plays from the 3-yard line after Grant shredded the defense for a 76-yard catch and run. Jewell was in on the final three stops.

“The defensive line did a great job. Everybody else fit the gaps perfectly and that allowed us linebackers to run free on the outside and inside and be able to not be blocked and have a free shot,” Jewell said.

“You’re backed up on the 2-yard line, can’t let them get anything, so you’re playing pretty aggressive down there.”

Then came the caveat.

“We finally had a good stop,” he added. “It was a little late stop with the big play right before it.”

Hawkeyes cornerback Desmond King said what everyone was thinking.

“We gave up a couple big plays that kind of put us in a bad position. But we came out, we fought to the end and we did what we had to do to get the stop,” King said.

“It’s an ugly win.”

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A quick fact-check reveals both of those words are true.

But if Iowa doesn’t fix the “ugly” part, there won’t be many more “wins.”