Analysis: Back end of Iowa defense suddenly a question mark
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Iowa’s plan this year was to find playing time for eight quality defensive linemen.
But six linebackers and seven defensive backs?
“'Unnerving' would be a good word,” Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz said after Saturday’s 48-31 victory over Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium.
He was referring specifically to Iowa’s new starting cornerback tandem — true freshmen Julius Brents and Riley Moss. But Ferentz also could have been speaking about the entire back seven of his defense, which has bordered on chaotic in a season marked by injuries and inexperience.
For Hawkeye fans who tend to prefer half-empty glasses, and there are plenty of you, the situation at linebacker and in the secondary should be the biggest concern as the team moves farther into the Big Ten Conference season.
What happened Saturday wasn’t entirely reassuring.
- Brents and Moss replaced injured starters Matt Hankins and Michael Ojemudia. They each got their first career interceptions. Moss even added a second one. But he was picked on routinely by Minnesota quarterback Zack Annexstad, and didn’t always have the answer.
“Those guys really came back and just kept playing and they didn’t get their heads down,” Ferentz said of his rookies.
Ferentz also said that Hankins (wrist injury) and Ojemudia (unspecified) were cleared to return to practice at different points last week. Ojemudia even played some in nickel and dime situations Saturday. The Hawkeyes would certainly benefit from at least one of them being able to start next week at Indiana.
- Jack Hockaday got a fourth consecutive start at middle linebacker, with Djimon Colbert alongside him, as the Hawkeyes went with a three-safety configuration for much of the game. Then Hockaday, a senior who was the team’s leading tackler entering the game, went out late in the first half with a knee injury. He left the stadium on crutches.
Hockaday was replaced by Amani Jones. Jones picked up a targeting penalty in the final minute of a game the Hawkeyes had well in hand. The price for his aggressive hit on a Gophers’ receiver? An ejection from Saturday’s game and a suspension for the first half of the Indiana game. With outside linebacker Nick Niemann already out with a leg injury, this is less than ideal.
“That’s a great question,” Ferentz said when asked who would start at middle linebacker next Saturday. “We’ve got a week to figure it out.”
Kristian Welch would seem to be the logical answer.
As for Hockaday:
“It’s not good in that he’s obviously on crutches and it’s (the knee) locked up on him right now. We don’t think it’s unstable and that’s a good sign. But we’ll know more (Sunday) after an MRI,” Ferentz said.
That is an extremely important MRI.
It’s already been unusual to see an Iowa defense shuffle so many players in and out of the lineup. The philosophy under defensive coordinator Phil Parker has been to stick with a base 4-3 formation in almost all instances.
That’s not possible this season. And the result can be what happened on Minnesota’s first touchdown drive Saturday.
The Hawkeyes were trying to insert two extra defensive backs on a third-and-9 play, but Colbert didn't come off the field, resulting in a flag for illegal substitution and some choice words from Parker.
“We have a lot of different personnel groups going in and out of the games at times. We practiced it all week and we felt confident and prepared coming into it,” Iowa safety Jake Gervase said.
“It’s tough when guys are in and out of the mix. It’s hard to adjust, hard to get on the same page.”
Gervase blamed himself for Minnesota’s final touchdown, a 7-yard pass from Annexstad to Rashod Bateman. Gervase and sophomore Geno Stone, making his first start of the season, were uncertain about the defensive signal.
“That’s on me. I’m the more experienced guy. I’ve got to get the call from the sideline,” Gervase said.
Stone started at safety essentially as a replacement for Niemann. Rather than use a third linebacker against a Minnesota offense that emphasizes wide receivers instead of tight ends, Parker went with a trio of safeties, sliding Amani Hooker into more of a hybrid role.
Stone also got one of Iowa’s four interceptions. Minnesota gained 234 yards and three touchdowns through the air.
“They just hit the spots in our defense that were open,” Stone said.
Iowa's defensive line produced four sacks Saturday and has helped to cover up a lot of inexperience elsewhere. But it's a tenuous situation for the back seven now, with injuries starting to take a toll.
Hankins, Hockaday, Niemann and Ojemudia are a lot to replace, if indeed all four are out of the lineup this week.
“Everybody’s got to prepare like a starter,” Gervase said.
“I’ll take full responsibility. I’m kind of the last guy of defense there on the back end. It’s my job to communicate, make sure we’re all on the same page, make sure guys are prepared to do their job.”
That’s an admirable statement from a veteran leader. But it’s also a lot to ask. What Iowa needs most is stability behind its strong defensive line. When that happens, or whether it does, is now the question of the season.