Behind the Iowa defense's surprising dominance over Michigan
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Jaleel Johnson was in a playful mood as the clock approached midnight on one of the most memorable Saturdays of his college football career.
And who could blame him?
Iowa’s biggest defensive player had the biggest hand in its stunning throttling of a mighty Michigan offense. Johnson had a career-high nine tackles, one sack and the safety that turned the momentum in the Hawkeyes’ 14-13 upset of the No. 3 Wolverines at soldout Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten Conference) held Michigan to 201 yards of offense, the lowest output in Jim Harbaugh’s two seasons as coach. And that came just one week after Penn State ran through the Hawkeyes for 599 yards.
From the lowest point of the season to the highest in just seven days. Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound senior defensive tackle, was asked what the difference was.
He considered the question.
“The difference, I would probably say, was 400 yards,” he told a gathering of reporters.
Johnson was told that linebacker Josey Jewell had made a vow to quarterback C.J. Beathard last week that if the offense put up 14 points the defense would take care of the rest.
“I had no idea he said that,” Johnson said, then feigned ignorance even about the outcome of the game. “What was the score again?”
He was reminded.
“Well, at least we did that.”
What was Johnson doing while freshman Keith Duncan lined up for the 33-yard field goal on the game’s final play, the kick that ended up handing Michigan its first loss of the season and wound up on all the national sports highlight shows?
“I was on my knees praying,” said Johnson, who was too nervous to watch but said he had complete faith in Duncan.
“I would hope he’d make that kick. It wasn’t that far away. I could have made that kick.”
Johnson said he’s only briefly greeted Duncan, a walk-on from North Carolina who is now a Hawkeye legend, in passing in the locker room.
“I’m probably going to buy him a burger or something,” Johnson said.
Duncan gets the credit for making the game-winning kick under enormous pressure on a national stage.
But there is no doubt that Johnson and the defense won this game for Iowa. Against Michigan, which came into the game averaging 47 points per game – third in the nation – there can be no weak links. The Wolverines would find them and punish them all game.
The Hawkeyes held strong throughout, all 11 defenders. Even with freshman Manny Rugamba starting at cornerback in place of the injured Greg Mabin. Even with Anthony Gair having to check in at safety after Miles Taylor went out with an injury on Michigan’s opening play.
Rugamba had a big fourth-quarter interception. Gair responded with seven tackles. The Wolverines held the ball for only 27 minutes, 15 seconds. Six drives lasted three plays or fewer, including the final three-and-out deep in Michigan territory that set up Duncan’s field goal.
It was a clutch performance from a maligned unit.
“Some people may get down after a loss like that, which we did. We were in the gutter,” linebacker Bo Bower said.
“We came in to the game wanting to play with a lot more fun and passion and play for each other. Not wanting to play for anyone else, just each other. Because that’s family.”
The defense, and the team, got its first big lift when punter Ron Coluzzi pinned Michigan at its 2-yard line with 6:41 left in the first half. The Wolverines were ahead 10-0. Two plays later, Johnson buried running back De’Veon Smith a yard deep in the north end zone and the Hawkeyes were on the board.
The honorary captain for Iowa on Saturday was former defensive end Derreck Robinson. Current defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie recalled his message to the team.
“He did say, ‘You guys can score on defense, too,’” Ekakitie said of the pregame pep talk. “I think when that happened, we were kind of like, ‘Yeah, we can score on defense.’”
When the game kicked off, Iowa was 24-point underdogs, a particularly galling position for a home team that began the season ranked 15th in the nation. Three consecutive losses at Kinnick, plus a 41-14 rout at Penn State, had dimmed expectations. And the players knew it.
“We felt like no one was really pulling for us. And I don’t blame them. They had no reason to after last week’s performance and how we’d been playing all year,” Ekakitie said. “But I think within the team we were capable of competing and it was just a matter of going out there and finally doing it for once.”
But to do it against the No. 3 team in the country?
“It’s just a number,” Ekakitie shrugged.
It’s also the number of games Iowa has remaining -- at Illinois this Saturday, at home vs. rival Nebraska the day after Thanksgiving, plus a bowl game, something the Hawkeyes secured by knocking off Michigan on a wild Saturday night at Kinnick. It’s hard to imagine any Iowa game this season topping that.
“We knew they were like the big dogs. We just made up our mind to come after them aggressively,” Johnson said, turning serious for a moment.
“It’s just about having belief. You can’t really hang your head. We just kept our heads up high. We just kept playing.”