Strong tests await Iowa's defensive front

Mark Emmert

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Reinforcements are not coming.

There are three Hawkeye trios who are being counted on to take nearly all the snaps along the defensive front seven — and the next four weeks will be the ultimate test of their fortitude.

Iowa defensive end Matt Nelson has been a mainstay all season, and now must try to contain elusive Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley.

At defensive tackle, that is Jaleel Johnson, Nathan Bazata and Faith Ekakitie.

At defensive end, sophomores Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson are joined by freshman Anthony Nelson.

At linebacker, Josey Jewell is flanked by Bo Bower and Ben Niemann.

That’s been it all season, and that figures to be how it remains. No other defensive lineman or linebacker has recorded more than nine tackles this season for Iowa.

None of those core nine are complaining, either.

“I don’t want to be taken off the field,” said Jewell, Iowa’s leading tackler with 77. “It’s awesome for me.”

But relying on nine players to man seven physically draining positions throughout a long football season can come with a price, and you only need to flash back one year to see what that can look like. Iowa allowed an average of 74 rushing yards per game before its bye week in 2015 and 160 per game afterward, an ominous statistic that was overlooked since Iowa won all 12 of its regular-season games.

Defensive players have acknowledged that they became worn down as the season went on, and that feeling eventually hit the Hawkeyes hard in a pair of postseason losses that followed.

Which brings us to this November, and another Iowa defense that has been playing well and is now coming off its annual week of in-season recuperation.

The four-game gauntlet to end the season for the Hawkeyes (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten Conference) begins at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at No. 23 Penn State (6-2, 4-1).

The immediate challenge means contending with a rapidly improving Nittany Lions offensive line and a pair of sophomore playmakers behind it.

Tailback Saquon Barkley has produced 1,101 all-purpose yards and 11 touchdowns, including a pair of 200-yard rushing days.

Quarterback Trace McSorley has passed for 1,818 yards and 12 touchdowns with only three interceptions. He’s just as dangerous when running, with 251 yards and another four scores. In Penn State’s signature win, against then-No. 2 Ohio State, he called his own number 19 times and rambled for 63 yards and a score.

This is what fans should keep an eye on, both Saturday and going forward: How will the Hawkeye defense hold up, especially up front? With No. 2 Michigan, a trip to Illinois and No. 10 Nebraska to follow, the road doesn’t get any easier.

“It really keeps our legs fresh. That’s the whole motive behind it,” Matt Nelson said of the three-man rotation at defensive end. "Coach (Reese) Morgan thought last year that there was too many snaps under the guys’ belts to really be fresh and really be hauling at the end of the year.”

That theory will be tested by McSorley, who seems to constantly be on the move.

“It gets frustrating, at times, when he squirts out of the pocket and you’ve got to go chase him down,” Nelson said of the challenge of containing a mobile quarterback. “Quarterbacks that are sitting ducks are a little more fun to tee off on.”

As for Barkley, his tendency is to dart to the outside to find big yardage, making defenses pay for any lapse in gap control.

“That's what great players do. They have you on edge every play of the game,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We've faced some backs like that, and it's tough duty.”

“It’s up to our D-line to keep this guy inside and make him run up the middle,” said Johnson, one of only two seniors among Iowa’s nine-member defensive front.

“The month of November is where it gets tough. You’re down to your last few games. There are teams that want to just fall off the map because, end of the season, everybody’s hurt.

“With us, that’s not the case.”

Barkley needs 112 yards to eclipse 1,000 for a second consecutive season. The prediction here is that if he reaches that mark against Iowa, it will mark the beginning of a long month indeed for Johnson and his cohorts.