Iowa Hawkeyes need defense to stand tall against speedy North Texas

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa middle linebacker Josey Jewell was displeased with the defense’s performance despite a victory last Saturday.

He grew angrier this week after repeated viewings of the film from that 44-41 overtime win at Iowa State.

“I feel even more strongly about that now. But it’s over with,” said Jewell, the leader of a Hawkeye defense that surrendered 467 yards to the Cyclones. “You look at it. You try to create something out of it, get some motivation from it.”

Iowa senior linebacker Josey Jewell tackles Iowa State running back David Montgomery on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa.

Jewell can say it’s over with, but the sense this week is that Iowa’s defenders were quietly seething about the effort. After looking so dominant in a season-opening 24-3 win over Wyoming, it was a surprisingly bumpy ride in Ames, with Iowa’s offense having to bail the defense out for a change.

And that's what makes Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game against North Texas so intriguing. The Mean Green (1-1) are mostly lean on the defensive side of the ball. But their Air Raid offense can pose some problems.

It’s time, then, for the real Iowa defense to reveal itself. Is it the group that throttled Wyoming star quarterback Josh Allen, or the version that surrendered ground so easily at Iowa State?

“I definitely take it personally,” Iowa linebacker Bo Bower said of the latter game. “It’s something that just can’t happen on the defense, and we’re striving for it not to happen again.”

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There is recent precedent for a proud Iowa defense to follow one sluggish performance with a shutdown effort. Last November, the Hawkeyes were embarrassed 41-14 at Penn State and rebounded with a game for the ages and a 14-13 humbling of Michigan.

Those stakes were much higher, of course, but it’s worth noting that Iowa’s next opponent is those same Nittany Lions on Sept. 23.

The time to fix the problems of last week is now.

“Coach has been harping on it,” Bower said, not needing to specify which coach. “We’re going through the film and we’re correcting every mistake that we made.”

Those included poor tackling, overpursuing runners, a lack of communication and not re-routing receivers off the line of scrimmage. That’s a lot of ground to cover in one week, but Iowa has a veteran front seven. They’re quick studies. It’s a young secondary that needs to catch up.

“The key moving forward is: How much do we learn?” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “This team doesn't have the size (of Iowa State) at the skill positions, but they've certainly got really good speed. They've got guys that are really dangerous and running backs included. So they're going to really test us.”

North Texas has scored 91 points in its first two games, with 13 plays that have covered 28 or more yards. The Mean Green, under second-year coach Seth Littrell, spread teams out with four wide receivers and love to find creases for senior tailback Jeffery Wilson, the owner of 2,202 career rushing yards. They also push the pace relentlessly, averaging 79 offensive snaps per game this fall.

"We embrace the opportunity and are going up there expecting to win and to make plays, especially offensively," North Texas sophomore quarterback Mason Fine told the Denton (Texas) Record-Chronicle. "We have a great gameplan. We have to execute, be confident in ourselves and go up there with something to prove. We can't be timid."

Fine is a 5-foot-11, 180-pound spark plug. He certainly wasn’t timid last Saturday, throwing for 424 yards and three touchdowns in a 54-32 loss at SMU.

He has Ferentz’s attention.

“He reminds me of (Matt) McGloin from Penn State five years ago,” Ferentz said of Fine. “He's fast, efficient, he'll run the ball, throws it where it needs to go. He gets it there quickly. So if you leave somebody open, he's going to find that guy and get the ball there.”

Iowa (2-0) showed a lot of dime coverage at Iowa State — the Hawkeyes brought in extra defensive backs Amani Hooker and Manny Rugamba to displace linebackers Bower and Ben Niemann — and plans to do so again Saturday. A better pass rush is needed after Iowa recorded a single sack a week ago. And they’ll aim to be much more aggressive with the smaller Mean Green receivers at the line of scrimmage, to try to disrupt Fine’s timing.

“We put a lot of young dudes in (against Iowa State), because we knew the receivers were going to be a matchup problem, so we had the young dudes covering them,” Iowa cornerback Michael Ojemudia said after helping hold off the Cyclones with a pass breakup in the end zone during overtime.

Ojemudia, a sophomore, is one of those “young dudes.”

Jewell is not. The senior all-American knows he needs to re-focus his troops quickly.

“If people see your weakness,” Jewell said, “they’ll try to attack it even more.”

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WHERE: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

TIME/TV: 2:30 p.m., ESPN2 (announcers: Anish Shroff, Ahmad Brooks, Roddy Jones)

LINE: Hawkeyes by 21 ½

WEATHER: 90 degrees and mostly sunny; winds from south at 12 mph

OF NOTE: Because of the expected near-record heat, Iowa is setting up hydration stations at all four corners of Kinnick and allowing fans to carry empty water bottles and/or sealed water bottles into the stadium. Bottled water will be sold at concession stands at a reduced price.