The Hawkeyes' run defense has finally hit its stride

Mark Emmert

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The beauty and the frustration of college football is that each week presents a moment of truth.

Iowa’s defensive line was stoically staring at one three weeks ago, huddled in its meeting room with position coach Reese Morgan. The Hawkeyes had lost 38-31 to Northwestern, but most alarming was the 198 rushing yards surrendered. Film sessions hadn’t been kind to Iowa’s defensive front for the last three weeks; opponents were averaging 210 yards on the ground.

“It wasn’t anything dramatic,” sophomore defensive end Parker Hesse recalled of that gathering. “It was just, ‘We’ve got to get back to our fundamentals. We’ve got to dominate our fundamentals.’

The Iowa defense stops Purdue's Markell  Jones in Saturday's 49-35 victory. The Hawkeyes held the Boilermakers' top tailback to 33 rushing yards.

“We’ve made a point that it starts with us in the run game. So we’ve got to be coming off the ball. We’ve got to be getting off blocks and make plays — make a difference.”

The turnaround has now stretched for two weeks — both of them Big Ten Conference road victories. The Hawkeyes held Minnesota to 102 rushing yards in a 14-7 victory on Oct. 8 and found improvement again Saturday in a 49-35 win at Purdue.

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The Boilermakers managed only 46 rushing yards on 22 attempts. It was Iowa’s best showing in that regard since holding Illinois to 46 yards on the ground last season.

It’s true that Purdue had to turn to the passing game after trailing 35-7 at halftime, but even in the opening 30 minutes, Iowa forced the hosts to be one-dimensional. The Boilermakers ran 12 times in the first half and gained 11 yards. Their longest run of the game was an 8-yard pickup by quarterback David Blough. The week before, Minnesota’s longest rush earned them just 11 yards — on a third-and-19 play.

The Gophers followed that performance up by running for 229 yards Saturday in a win at Maryland. The Boilermakers had gained 231 rushing yards at Illinois the week before they were stymied by Iowa.

Have the Hawkeyes found a fix?

“I think we’re gaining ground there,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of his team’s ability to keep opponents from doing just that. “That’s two weeks in a row we’ve done a good job. I think we’re starting to understand the intensity you have to have to play the run.

“We’re hardly a finished product; (but) at least we’re moving in the right direction, and that’s encouraging.”

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It comes at a perfect time for the Hawkeyes' defensive line. Their biggest test — another moment of truth — comes Saturday when Wisconsin visits Kinnick Stadium for an 11 a.m. game on ESPN. The Badgers (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) are coming off an overtime loss to Ohio State, but rushed for 236 yards in that matchup. Senior Corey Clement had 164 of them. Wisconsin became the first team this season to score a rushing touchdown against the Buckeyes.

After a bye week, Iowa travels to Penn State to try to cage talented sophomore Saquon Barkley, who's averaging five yards per carry, and gashed Maryland for 202 yards a week ago.

“The challenge will be just matching their physicality,” Hesse said of tangling with the Badgers. “They’re going to try to play smash-mouth football. That’s what they do. We’re just going to have to get 11 hats to the ball.”

The Hawkeyes (5-2, 3-1) will get a boost in the physical matchup if Jaleel Johnson continues his strong play. The 6-foot-4, 310-pound senior is Iowa’s best defensive tackle, and he took the blame for some of the earlier rushing-game struggles.

“It’s just a matter of us playing our run fits. I don’t want to use the word ‘I,’ but I feel like me, personally, that’s something that I can work on,” Johnson said after Saturday’s win. “With me not really doing what I need to do, that can really hurt our defense. We’ve really been working to get our stuff tight in recent weeks.”

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Last season, Iowa was stout against the run for the first seven games in particular. Even then, Johnson never felt the defense reached its potential. The Hawkeyes finished the season 12-2.

“You’re never going to be perfect. But eventually you’ll be excellent at it, and that’s what we really strive for,” Johnson said. “In due time, I think we will. If we really just hone in on what we have to do and play our guy, play our gap, I think so.

“After the Northwestern game, we made up our minds that we need to really step it up. We took some steps forward. We knew we were going to be up for a challenge. It’s up to us to meet it.”