Hawkeye defensive line not living up to its billing, has trouble with young Illini

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Six weeks ago, Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker felt confident enough about his front four to proclaim this:

“I think it’s the best we’ve been up front as a whole since I’ve been defensive coordinator here.”

Six games into a choppy Hawkeye season, defensive end Parker Hesse felt uncertain enough about his position group to proclaim this:

“We were expected to get more pressure and help our defense out in the back end, and we’ve got to get better at that.”

Iowa's A.J. Epenesa puts pressure on Illinois quarterback Jeff George, Jr. during their game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017.

Illinois, which entered play averaging 267 yards per game with four freshmen starting on the offensive line and a new quarterback in Jeff George Jr., produced a whopping 446 against a surprisingly toothless Hawkeye defense Saturday.

Iowa won 45-16. But what looks like a pummeling on the scoreboard was anything but that in reality.

The Illini had one touchdown called back when one of their freshman blockers, Vederian Lowe, wandered downfield as if he was a receiver. He wasn’t. Iowa’s Amani Hooker came up with an interception of an underthrown pass to end that scoring threat.

Iowa set up one touchdown with a fake punt and scored a back-breaker on a Brandon Snyder interception return.

The Hawkeyes had allowed four gains of 30 yards or more all season. Illinois gashed them for three.

The point is — this game could have been much closer. The Hawkeyes made some big plays but also found fortune on their side at times.

It even led an Illinois freshman tight end to say: “I feel like we’re the better team; we just played bad today.”

Not all of the blame falls on Iowa’s defensive line, of course. But that group came up with only one sack of George — on the very first play of the game when the junior quarterback, who is not fleet of foot, ill-advisedly rolled to his right and was caught from behind by Iowa defensive end Anthony Nelson.

After that? George had plenty of time to survey the field and pass for 246 yards. The Illini ran for a season-high 204 yards, averaging nearly seven yards per carry.

“We were up and down,” said Hesse, a junior who was unusually quiet Saturday with only two assisted tackles. “I’m not exactly pleased with how I played in the first half and I think a lot of the guys in the room would echo that.”

Middle linebacker Josey Jewell said the Hawkeyes made some halftime adjustments that did help.

“Illinois got rid of the ball pretty quick a couple of times,” he said of the lack of quarterback pressure. “In the second half, we changed some small D-line stuff, being able to move people up front. Being able to actually take advantage of our numbers and not let them outnumber us on the offensive line.”

It helped limit Illinois to three second-half points. But the Illini still piled up 194 yards after intermission. That’s an alarming statistic considering Illinois also is the weakest foe on Iowa’s Big Ten Conference schedule.

It was Iowa senior defensive tackle Nathan Bazata who said last week: “We’re not there yet. We need to take a big step forward this week.”

Bazata wasn’t around long enough to help make that happen Saturday. He went out with a first-half injury — not so serious that it will keep him out of the Oct. 21 game at Northwestern, coach Kirk Ferentz said — that certainly didn’t help matters.

But no one on the defensive line was taking enough steps forward to put George in jeopardy. And it’s been that way much of the season. Iowa’s defensive line has generated only 9 ½ sacks in six games, not nearly the production they were looking for when the season dawned.

“I would think as a competitor if you came off the field after a game like that completely satisfied, I don’t know how long you’d be doing it,” Hesse said. “I think we know what we’re capable of and we have pretty high standards for ourselves and when we don’t play up to that, it is frustrating for us.

“At times as a defensive line we come up with big plays. We can swing the game. But we’re trying to put together a complete game.”

They’ll only get six more chances at that.