The Iowa cornerback is playing at an all-American level. Josh Jackson leads the nation with 5 interceptions. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral
MADISON, Wis. — Josh Jackson speaks in humble terms, even as he continued to — somehow — up his performance yet again.
A week after earning multiple national defensive player of the week honors with his three-interception performance against Ohio State, the Iowa junior cornerback recorded another three turnovers Saturday at No. 3 Wisconsin — and scored both Hawkeye touchdowns in a 38-14 loss.
Five interceptions and one forced fumble in the last two weeks, after he recorded four pass breakups Oct. 28 against Minnesota.
After Saturday night’s games end, his seven interceptions will likely be the most in FBS. That's one shy of the school season record shared by Lou King (1981) and Desmond King (2015).
“What he’s done the last two weeks just statistically, I don’t know how you can do better than that,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of one of the day’s only positive story lines. “It’s almost video-game type numbers. It’s just the result of his hard work.”
That was evident on the first of his two pick-six interceptions of Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook on Saturday.
On a third-and-13 play, Jackson matched up with sophomore A.J. Taylor in the slot. Before the ball was snapped, Jackson correctly predicted where this play was headed.
Taylor ran an out route to the right sideline. Jackson laid back enough to draw the throw, and he jumped to intercept it — and went untouched 43 yards for a Hawkeye touchdown just 90 seconds in the game.
“It was a formation I saw in the film room,” Jackson said. “I kind of figured they were going to try to get the out route. I just saw the ball, saw the route … happened to go in my hands for the score.”
Humble, as usual. His answer was similar about his second pick-six — a 52-yard runback off a deflection on third-and-18 that cut Iowa’s deficit to 17-14.
“Just happened to land in my hands,” Jackson said.
A defensive player was Iowa’s only offense.
Earlier, he had poked away a fumble that was recovered by Manny Rugamba. One turnover per quarter for three quarters against a top-five opponent.
Jim Thorpe Award people, are you paying attention?
Jackson wasn’t listed among their 13 semifinalists in late October for the award given to the nation’s top defensive back, but he still could be named a finalist. And it’d be a shame if he wasn’t after he continued to show why he’s rocketing into the first round on NFL draft boards.
Thorpe or not, powerful people are watching. Scouts from five NFL teams were listed to be in attendance Saturday. Among those taking notes was Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace.
Jackson has for weeks preferred to focus his answers on the present, rather than whether he would turn pro early.
“We just have to come back and work hard the next couple weeks and finish up strong,” Jackson said Saturday.
Hooker out, Taylor in
It seems like every week there’s another surprise (to the outside world) pregame injury revelation on Iowa’s defense.
Saturday, it was safety Amani Hooker who couldn’t go. The sophomore who opened last week’s 55-24 win against Ohio State with a pick-six was replaced by the man whose job he previously took, Miles Taylor.
The senior made his 30th career start, but first since he was benched in favor of Hooker early in Iowa’s 45-16 win against Illinois on Oct. 7.
“Just next man in,” Taylor said of returning to the lineup. “Do your job. Be ready when you have the opportunity.”
Taylor is a solid teammate. He has been praised for the work he’s done in getting a younger player ready. Jackson also praised him earlier this week for helping him learn to “trust the process” while he stood mostly on the sidelines for three years.
Saturday, Taylor and Jake Gervase made up Iowa's safety tandem. Taylor had seven tackles Saturday.
Hooker was injured during the Ohio State game, but played through it. He didn’t suit up Saturday and was limping with what appeared to be an injury to his left leg.
After the game, Ferentz said he hoped Hooker would return in next week’s home finale against Purdue.
Iowa also saw defensive tackle Matt Nelson and cornerback Manny Rugamba leave Saturday’s game.
“I think those guys will be OK,” Ferentz said, “but I don’t want to speak prematurely.”
Iowa LB Josey Jewell discusses the 38-14 loss to Wisconsin. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral
What about the defense?
The defense scored all of Iowa’s points. It got little to no help from the offense, which gained 66 yards.
Still, it was gashed for 247 rushing yards on 49 carries — a 5.0 average. That’s not good enough.
Linebacker Josey Jewell, who of course led the Hawkeyes with 12 tackles, explained the deficiencies as he saw them.
“It goes back to consistency,” Jewell said. “Every play, going out there, giving the same effort 100 percent of the time. Filling gaps. And coming downhill 100 percent hard. That’s something today we had a little trouble on.
“Being able to come downhill, not knowing where the ball was going to spill. We needed people to set edges. That sometimes didn't happen. Our gap integrity needs to improve. I think gap integrity’s a big one we need to be able to work on this week … to make sure gaps aren’t too wide in the middle."
It’s Wisconsin. You expect Wisconsin to run the ball. The 247 yards was slightly above its season average. Still, it remains a problem for the Hawkeyes.
They’re allowing 4.35 yards per carry for the season, which if it holds would be the second-worst average by Iowa since allowing 4.47 in 2000. Only the 2014 rush defense in that span has been worse (4.42).
Wherefore art thou, Desmond King?
Iowa not only lacks the explosion the former all-American cornerback offered in the punt-return game the past two seasons, it lacks average production.
After Jackson’s struggles earlier this season with judging and catching punts, moving to Matt VandeBerg seemed the safer and more sensible option — until Saturday, when the sure-handed senior’s poor judgment cost Iowa precious yardage … and points.
With Iowa nursing a 7-3 lead, he curiously let one boot by Anthony Lotti get over his head and roll for a net of 59 yards to the Hawkeye 7.
“I thought it was going to go over my head in the end zone,” VandeBerg explained. “ I didn’t have good enough field awareness to know we had a few more yards there where I could have fielded it. So, that’s completely on me.”
After a three-and-out by Iowa’s offense, Wisconsin took over at its own 49 — and marched quickly for a score and 10-7 lead.
Then after another Iowa stop, VandeBerg let a Lotti kick bounce in front of him — and let it go for a 62-yard net, from Wisconsin’s 30 to Iowa’s 8.
After another three-and-out, Wisconsin got a very short field and scored in three plays covering 26 yards and led, 17-7.
Field position (and the game) slipped away quickly. There are only so many yards that can be saved in the punt-return game; but it’s clear Iowa needs each one it can squeeze out going forward.