Iowa defense must showcase a magnificent seven

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The company line is that the mistakes being made by Iowa’s rush defense are “correctable.”

As if that’s supposed to provide any comfort to Hawkeye fans. Aren’t all mistakes correctable in hindsight?

The urgent question for the Hawkeyes is whether they’ll be able to effectively stop the run at all this season. Saturday’s game against Northwestern should provide the answer.

Iowa linebacker Bo Bower (41) and crew must show that they can snuff the run as they did on the this play against North Dakota State. Saturday's matchup with Northwestern provides a golden opportunity to do so.

If the 11 a.m. showdown on ESPNU resembles the past two Iowa outings, when the defense got pushed around in alarming fashion at times by offenses that shouldn’t have had a physical advantage, then lower your expectations considerably.

Maybe shut your eyes, too. The Hawkeyes have games left against more imposing teams like Nebraska, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, all in the top half of the Big Ten Conference in rushing offense.

But if the “real” Hawkeyes defense does stand up against a Northwestern team that ranks 13th in the league in rushing yards per game (108), then a Big Ten West title defense becomes easier to envision.

“We’ve given up so many plays, so many yards,” Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson said. “It’s just a matter of being disciplined and hearing the calls. There’s nothing you can really do or say.”

Iowa (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) has given up 432 rushing yards in its past two games, losing to North Dakota State and holding off Rutgers. The Hawkeyes rank 12th in the Big Ten with an average of 179 yards allowed on the ground. It’s not the only question facing a team that began the season ranked 15th in the nation; a middling passing offense that must adjust to the loss of top wide receiver Matt VandeBerg also bears watching.

Iowa's Matt VandeBerg likely to qualify for medical redshirt

But how Iowa handles the spread offense of the Wildcats (1-3, 0-1) will be my primary focus Saturday.

Northwestern is a team Iowa should control, as it did last season in a 40-10 pasting. The Wildcats gained only 51 yards rushing in that one.

Junior tailback Justin Jackson is a workhorse and needs only 66 yards Saturday to reach 3,000 for his career. Quarterback Clayton Thorson peeled off a 42-yard touchdown run last Saturday against Nebraska.

But this is not a strong Northwestern offense, averaging a league-worst 16.3 points per game. The Wildcats have punted 24 times and have struggled to mount drives all season.

“We’ve never been a smooth, crisp, really smooth team in September,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz noted this week. “I think October is coming, so it will be a really good time to get in that gear. … You kind of get what you deserve usually, but when you're not pushing it forward enough, then that opens the door for some disappointment.”

September gives way to October on Saturday, just in time for the Hawkeyes’ homecoming. This game will come down to controlling one-on-one matchups.

Northwestern is a team that likes to spread defenses out, and no doubt will be even more determined to do so after watching what the Scarlet Knights did effectively last Saturday. Rutgers was able to run 77 plays from scrimmage, increasing the tempo to keep the Hawkeyes in a base defense as often as possible while also lining up in formations that forced linebackers Josey Jewell and Bo Bower to vacate the box. Without those two not in position to support the run, the Scarlet Knights gained 193 yards rushing, usually through the middle of the line.

“We’ve got to plan if a team tries to spread us out or keep us in the box,” said Bower, who finished with seven tackles against Rutgers. “I think it’s just the will and the want and I think we’ve gotten a lot better at really wanting to stop plays at the end of the game. I think that our will has really increased.

“You practice so hard. Why would you not want to leave it all out on the field in the game?”

Iowa defenders were hesitant to admit that fatigue has been a factor late in games the past two weeks. But both NDSU and Rutgers were able to mount sustained second-half drives, primarily using rushing plays, to apply pressure.

“I think we still need to work on it, to be able to give 100 percent through the fourth quarter,” Jewell said. “I think sometimes maybe we’re a little tired, but we just need to improve our endurance and understand what we need to be able to give.”

Hawkeye icon, Des Moines lawyer Randy Duncan dies at 79

The pass defense hasn’t been as vulnerable for Iowa, helped by 13 sacks and the tremendous cover skills of cornerback Desmond King. This is a game where the rush defense needs to show it can keep up, against a team that is last in the Big Ten in possession time at just 26 minutes per game.

“Some of the runs we gave up wasn’t so much what Rutgers did, it was us just not quite being on top. It wasn’t any glaring issue, it was just not quite playing how we’re capable,” Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said.

“We can’t give up any free plays, any gimmes.”

The Iowa defense has been getting a huge boost from its unofficial 12th member, punter Ron Coluzzi. The transfer from Central Michigan is averaging 43.3 yards per kick and has allowed zero return yards. Last Saturday, four of his punts pinned Rutgers inside its 20-yard line and the Scarlet Knights’ average drive started from its 21, limiting the damage that those 77 plays could inflict.

Coluzzi is greedy, though. He said this week that he wants to do a better job of pushing opposing teams inside their 10-yard line.

Leistikow: 'Who Hates Iowa' month begins with Northwestern

“I’m trying to be there for my team and letting them know that they can count on me,” Coluzzi said. “If I can do a better job with pooch punts, you get to totally eliminate a drive that the other team can have.”

Coluzzi is doing his part. This week, it’s time for the defense to finish what he starts.

It’s a must-win game if the Hawkeyes want to keep division title dreams alive.

That means it’s a must-show-up game for the defensive front seven.