Iowa takeaways: The run defense still stinks

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Same story, different verse.

Five games into the season, and it’s official: Iowa’s rush defense just isn’t very good.

Northwestern rolled up 198 yards on the ground in Saturday’s 38-31 win over the Hawkeyes before a crowd of 67,047 at Kinnick Stadium.

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Justin Jackson ran 26 times for 171 yards himself — a 6.6-yard per-carry average.

What’s wrong?

Northwestern junior running back Justin Jackson (21) outruns Iowa safety Brandon Snyder for a 58-yard touchdown.

“Wrapping up, everybody getting to the ball, knowing your assignment,” safety Brandon Snyder. “Just little things like that.”

More coverage from Saturday's loss:

And little things can equal big plays — like the 58-yard touchdown burst by Jackson that broke a 24-24 tie with 2:07 left in the third quarter.

“They shot through and kind of got between our safeties,” Snyder said, “and we couldn’t quite run it down.”

This has become a weekly trend. The Hawkeyes are allowing 182.8 yards a game on the ground — with alarming totals of 239, 193 and 198 in the past three weeks.

And Northwestern didn’t do anything tricky. The Wildcats just beat Iowa up front.

“We knew what plays they were going to run,” cornerback Desmond King said.

They just didn't stop them.

Players insist they’re close to fixing the run-game leak.

But this now goes into believe-it-when-we-see-it territory.

“We’re close. We’re really close. We did some really good things today,” said Snyder, whose crunching hit on Jackson forced a fumble for Northwestern’s only turnover. “But we also gave up too many big and critical errors.”

No-huddle works, then vanishes

Iowa scored 31 points in one of Saturday’s most misleading statistics. Three scoring drives were short (35 yards or less). And a Northwestern defense that gave up 556 yards a week ago to Nebraska limited the Hawkeyes to just 283.

The Hawkeyes’ best look offensively was when they went to a quick-tempo, no-huddle approach after falling behind, 17-7. They scored touchdowns on both drives and took a 21-17 lead ahead of the half.

The no-huddle didn’t return until Iowa’s final fourth-quarter drive in a race against the clock. Its appearance and disappearance summarized the inconsistency of the day for the Hawkeye offense.

“It was just a little change up to try to get us in a groove a little bit,” Ferentz said. “Clearly, after today's ballgame, everything is up on the board. Everything is open again to discussion.

“We’re going to have to find something to get our guys on track a little faster, a little quicker, and that's a coach's thing. That's also a player's thing. We've all got to work together, and we will. We'll work together to get this fixed.”

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Return game worked, at least

Iowa’s best offense, actually, was its punt- and kickoff-return game.

“I saw opportunity throughout the week, watching film,” said King, who racked up 162 return yards — 85 on three kickoffs and 77 on four punts.

He came oh-so-close to taking one to the house several times. His first punt return, a 32-yarder, took Iowa to the Northwestern 5. Akrum Wadley scored one play later.

“Just watching their kicker, where he’s kicking the ball,” King said of his scouting report. “We had guys blocking, doing the best that they could, to get open lanes for me. I seized the opportunity. We had success in our return game, (and) that helped our offense a lot today.”

Riley McCarron also had a big day in the return game, running his lone kickoff back 54 yards and returning a punt 38 yards. On that one, King faked as if he were catching the punt on one side of the field while McCarron caught it with an open lane on the other side — one of Iowa's best coaching moves of the day.

Wildcat player is OK

Northwestern linebacker Brett Walsh was scheduled to return to Evanston, Ill., Saturday night — good news after a scary scene in the third quarter at Kinnick Stadium.

Walsh was immobilized and taken off the field on a cart after getting hit by what Ferentz called “a crisp block” by a Hawkeye on a kickoff return. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald later reported that tests came back negative on Walsh.

“The best news of the day,” Fitzgerald said.

Payback stinks

The Hawkeyes had beaten Northwestern by a combined 88-17 over the past two seasons, primarily winning the battles in the trenches to dominate.

But Iowa’s three-game winning streak in a tense series ended Saturday to a Northwestern squad that lost at home to Western Michigan and Illinois State. Iowa was a 12-point favorite at kickoff.

“We knew it was going to be a hostile environment, and we had to avoid the first-round knockout,” Fitzgerald said. “Kinnick and the Hawkeyes, they knock a lot of teams out in the first round here in the first 15 minutes, and for us to weather that storm and then not to flinch after they went on a 17-0 run (to take a 24-17 lead), I thought showed some maturity from this group.”

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Personnel notes

  • Beathard completed 19 passes Saturday, only one to a tight end — to George Kittle, for 18 yards in the fourth quarter. The Hawkeyes’ search for a No. 2 tight-end target continues, too. Peter Pekar remained the No. 2 guy, but as a primary blocker. Freshman Noah Fant played on the game’s second snap, but didn’t have a target. Junior Jon Wisnieski participated in warmups but did not play.
  • Derrick Mitchell Jr. returned to the Hawkeye lineup as a third-down back after missing the past two games with an injury. He had two catches for 10 yards.
  • Wide receiver Jonathan Parker was suited up for the first time this season, but did not play. He suffered a foot injury in the summer.
  • Iowa recorded a season-low one sack Saturday (shared by Josey Jewell and Parker Hesse) while giving up a season-high six. Four sacks were credited to backup defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo. By the way, Jewell had a career-high 16 tackles for Iowa.