Iowa's defense goes to work, and Northern Illinois pays the price
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s base defense was too much for Northern Illinois to handle Saturday.
Way too much.
From the beginning of the game, when forced onto the field after a blocked punt left the Huskies at Iowa’s 23-yard line, to the end, when the Huskies seemed eager to get off the field with all their limbs intact, the Hawkeye defense dominated. And got better as the game wore on.
“We were going to try to outwork these guys. We want to make them quit,” Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa said after a season-opening 33-7 victory at Kinnick Stadium. “I think we got them to the point to where they were getting a little tired.”
The defense carried the day the way it often has — by sticking to the basics and simply performing them so well that an opponent slowly lost its will to compete.
Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker made only one significant change in his personnel — benching starting middle linebacker Amani Jones in favor of senior Jack Hockaday early on. He rotated six defensive linemen, and they produced four sacks. He never used a nickel package in passing downs. There was no need.
Iowa’s offense was much slower to find its footing. So the defense kept giving it shorter and shorter fields to work with in the second half.
The Hawkeye touchdown drives consumed 58 yards, then 46, 26 and finally 35. That’s a luxury any offense would enjoy.
The Hawkeyes held a precarious 3-0 lead at halftime. The defense had played very well, but was about to get much better.
“Three-nothing, we were going to do whatever it took,” Iowa linebacker Nick Niemann said of the second-half mindset.
In the third quarter, Northern Illinois had four possessions. Three of them were three-and-outs. The final one ended with a fumble when Epenesa jarred Huskies quarterback Marcus Childers so violently that the football squirted loose and was leapt on by Iowa defensive tackle Chauncey Golston.
Iowa built a 33-0 lead, bolstered naturally by the defense. Strong safety Amani Hooker produced a safety to go along with an early interception. Finally, it was time to put in the backups, and they allowed Northern Illinois to get into the end zone with 2:12 left in the game.
The Hawkeye defense lost its shutout. But got a shoutout.
“They got after our butt,” Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said. “I think the difference was their D-line got after our O-line in the second half and that put our defense on the field too much, and they caused turnovers.”
The big question leading into the 2018 season centered around Iowa’s linebacking corps. Starters Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann and Bo Bower all graduated, leaving a massive void.
It was thought that Jones would be the new leader of a new group. Instead, the junior had some rough moments early on Saturday, especially in run defense. Hockaday, the forgotten man among Iowa linebackers, came in and steadied things.
“You have to step in there and there can’t be any fall from your No. 1 guy. You’ve got to just go out there and do your job and get the defense aligned,” Hockaday said after picking up five tackles.
“I felt like I kept my poise, made the right calls.”
Iowa may have a middle linebacker controversy on its hands heading into next Saturday’s showdown against Iowa State.
Flanking Hockaday, Kristian Welch and Nick Niemann each had outstanding games. Welch had a team-high 11 tackles before losing his helmet on one play and having to leave the game. He also broke loose for a free shot at Childers, who bounced backward out of Welch’s grasp, but then dropped the football and fell on it. It was a feeble exercise that epitomized the Huskies’ offense on this day.
Niemann had four tackles, but one was the biggest play of the first half. The Huskies had a fourth-and-2 from Iowa’s 39-yard line late in a scoreless first quarter. Running back D.J. Brown took a handoff and saw nothing but Niemann. The Hawkeye sophomore buried him for a six-yard loss.
“We were running a blitz and I just saw a seam and I hit it,” Niemann said.
Childers said he saw nothing different in Iowa’s defensive scheme from the first half to the second. And that’s the key. The Hawkeyes aren’t fancy. At their best, they just run their base defense more relentlessly.
Parker dialed up a few linebacker blitzes. Otherwise, he just sat back and let his defense go to work.
And the Hawkeyes did. It was basically perfect.