Analysis: Time for Iowa's defense to make another stand

Mark Emmert

TAMPA, Fla. — Iowa’s 2016 football season began with its offense producing 87 points in a pair of blowout victories.

The regular season ended five weeks ago with another 40-point explosion and a rout of Nebraska.

So the narrative that the Hawkeyes have been toothless on offense all season isn’t exactly accurate.

Iowa needs more red-zone stuffs like this one by linebacker Josey Jewell against Wisconsin if it hopes to defeat Florida in Monday's Outback Bowl.

Maddeningly inconsistent, sure. Iowa also had five games in which it scored 14 points or fewer and enters Monday’s Outback Bowl against Florida (noon, ABC) ranked 120th in FBS in yards per game, at 333.

So suffice it to say that it’s the defense that must be counted on to produce a Hawkeye victory at Raymond James Stadium.

The good news for Iowa fans is that Florida’s offense is 116th out of 128 teams in yards per game, at 345. For comparison’s sake, the only three units that anemic that the Hawkeyes faced this season were Minnesota, Illinois and Rutgers. Those teams combined to score 14 points against a staunch Iowa defense.

Start with this telling quote Saturday from Florida offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier: “We haven’t had the consistency we need. Obviously, we’re still jelling together as a group.”

A team “still jelling” in its 13th and final game of the season is one ripe for the picking. And Iowa’s defense must do just that Monday in order to snap a four-game bowl losing streak.

That defense has been terrific in Iowa’s three-game win streak to end the season, yielding only 23 points.

But it’s facing a five-week layoff, and the last time the Hawkeyes had even one week off between games, things weren’t so pretty. Penn State ran up 599 yards and put a 41-14 hurting on Iowa after its bye week.

That game was remarkable for the number of explosive plays Iowa allowed. And that’s one area where the Gators, with graduate transfer quarterback Austin Appleby back under center, can surprise opponents.

Florida scored 27 offensive touchdowns all season and averaged a mere 5.1 yards per play. But amidst all that sputtering were occasional flashes of speed. Wide receiver Antonio Callaway is the likeliest culprit. He has 47 receptions for 666 yards and three touchdowns, plus one rushing and one kickoff return score, and will be facing an Iowa defense depleted at cornerback. Sophomore Josh Jackson will be making his first career start opposite all-American Desmond King. Only redshirt freshman Michael Ojemudia is available to back them up.

They will be picked on.

“They can get us on the edges. We’ve got to be concerned about that,” Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker said last week. “And they can throw the ball deep.”

Nussmeier echoed that thought.

“We’ve got some explosive playmakers on the perimeter. We’ve struggled to find the consistency in the running game,” he said. “We need to be a successful running team — a team that can dictate the box through the run. So we’ve got to find that week-in and week-out approach where we can be a physical and an explosive team at the same time.”

It doesn’t seem likely that the Gators will find that against Iowa, however. Led by Jaleel Johnson in the middle of the defensive line, with superb middle linebacker Josey Jewell flying to the ball behind him, the Hawkeyes have been swallowing up opponents lately, executing a simple game plan to near-perfection. Michigan, Illinois and Nebraska combined for just 249 yards on the ground against Iowa in its past three games.

“They’re physical. They don’t do a lot of different things, but they play their scheme exceptionally well,” Nussmeier said of the Hawkeye defense. “They’re very, very sound in what they do. They know where to be.”

Nussmeier said Iowa’s defense doesn’t directly compare to any Southeastern Conference team his Gators faced this season. But it’s worth noting that the past five of those teams held Florida to 20 points or fewer.

The guess here is that Iowa makes that six straight. Florida has an exceptional field-goal kicker in Eddy Pineiro. The Hawkeyes need to force the Gators to rely on his leg once they venture into the red zone.

That’s what happened the last time Iowa found itself in a defensive gem — a 14-13 victory over Michigan. The time before that? The Hawkeyes let Wisconsin dent the end zone twice and came away 17-9 losers.

“They do a great job of not allowing explosive plays,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said with admiration. “When you do that, and you don't let teams get into the end zone, defensively, you give yourself a great opportunity to be successful. And, obviously, in Iowa's case, that's why they've been successful for so many years.”

That success hasn’t carried over to bowl games recently, but I have a hunch that’s about change.

Give Callaway one touchdown in a game where Jackson otherwise holds up well. Give Pineiro a pair of field goals when the Hawkeye defense stiffens near its goal line. Then trust that C.J. Beathard can make his Hawkeye quarterback finale just productive enough.

My prediction: Iowa 17, Florida 13.