Iowa Hawkeye defense smothers Josh Allen and Wyoming

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Josh Allen found out Saturday what Ben Roethlisberger did 14 years ago:

You can come into Kinnick Stadium with the big arm and media buzz and NFL expectations. But the Iowa defense will have the final word about how you depart Kinnick Stadium.

In 2003, it was Iowa 21, Miami of Ohio 3, Roethlisberger four interceptions.

Iowa junior defensive back Jake Gervase celebrates after upending Wyoming's Nico Evans at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017.

On Saturday, that script looked awfully familiar: Iowa 24, Wyoming 3, Allen two picks and some wounded pride.

In each game, the Hawkeyes were even kind enough to let the visitors get on the scoreboard first. But only once.

“That’s probably the best defense we’ll see all year,” Allen offered gamely after completing only 23-of-40 passes for 174 yards while being sacked three times.

More Hawkeye football:

Not only did the Cowboys never ride into the end zone, they never even made it inside the red zone.


“We couldn’t get the run game going,” Allen said after his team ran for 59 yards on 30 carries. “They were able to play their base defense and stop the run. It’s tough to do anything against that defense when they are stopping the run.”

That may have been the most impressive thing about what Iowa’s defense accomplished Saturday. The Hawkeyes stymied an offense led by a junior quarterback who some scouts think (thought?) will be a top-three pick in the NFL Draft. And they did it with essentially the same seven players and no gimmicks in the back end of the defense.

Wyoming tried to spread Iowa out. The Hawkeyes stuck to their plan, using a nickel package on perhaps two plays.

Outside linebacker Ben Niemann gets much of the credit for that. His ability to cover up receivers — to serve as essentially a third cornerback at times — was pivotal.

“He’s got great footwork,” Hawkeye cornerback Josh Jackson said approvingly. “He does well getting out to the flats and just covering receivers.“

Niemann deflected attention away from himself.

“I think we were just fundamentally sound. We were in our fits and guys were running to the ball really,” Niemann said. “That’s where it starts. If you’re flying around the field, you’ve got a chance to make plays.”

Niemann had a career-high 13 tackles and he wasn’t even his team’s leader in that stat Saturday.  Middle linebacker Josey Jewell had 14. Weakside linebacker Bo Bower added 11. The senior trio was unrelenting, and Allen paid the price.

“We want to lead the defense. We’re three seniors,” Niemann said. “We have to control the front and we have to be good in coverage.”

It wasn’t surprising to see Iowa’s linebackers in lockdown mode. The team’s young secondary was the real revelation, a quartet that got no relief from the sideline, and didn’t need it.

Jackson, in his second career start, got his first interception on a terrific read of an Allen pass. He returned it 41 yards, and that might have been the most he ran all day as the Cowboys rarely tested Iowa with deep passes.

“It kind of felt like practice. I thought I’d have a little bit more emotions, but I was so tired I just wanted to sit down,” Jackson said. “I knew they were throwing ‘out’ routes all day. … I just undercut him and got the interception.”

Michael Ojemudia, making his first start opposite Jackson, was rarely targeted and finished with three tackles. He did make the Hawkeyes’ biggest defensive mistake, allowing Wyoming wide receiver C.J. Johnson to run past him for what appeared to be an easy second-half touchdown. But Iowa caught a break when Johnson didn’t catch the pass cleanly and landed out of the end zone by the time he could gather it.

Jake Gervase started at free safety for the first time and made two fantastic plays on third down to force a pair of early Wyoming punts. He raced to the sideline to deflect one Allen pass before John Okwoli could snare it. And he burst in on tailback Nico Evans on a third-and-1 carry to bury him for a three-yard loss.

“I was just in the right spot, reading my keys,” Gervase said. “We just executed the gameplan. (Defensive coordinator Phil) Parker kept it pretty simple throughout the game, and I think all 11 guys, every time we were on the field, we competed and held an explosive offense to three points.”

Strong safety Miles Taylor, the senior of the group, tied a career high with eight tackles, showing aggressive run support.

There was nothing fancy about it. The Hawkeye defense imposed its will on Allen and Wyoming early, and never let up.

“We've been hurt on the perimeter at times, whether it's running the ball out there or throwing it out there. It all starts with somebody setting the edge out there,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Somebody's got to put an end to things there, and we lost it on the quarterback a couple of times. But I thought we did a better job of that today. A lot of it was Ben Niemann, but other guys were involved with it as well.”