Iowa cornerback Michael Ojemudia knows Purdue will pass early and often. He wants to be challenged Saturday. Listen: Mark Emmert, firstname.lastname@example.org
At the halfway point of Iowa’s regular season, the Hawkeyes rank No. 5 among FBS teams in total defense and scoring defense. If those numbers hold, they would establish new benchmarks under eighth-year defensive coordinator Phil Parker.
Iowa last sported a top-five national defense in the 2008 season, when that 9-4 team allowed 13.8 points a game. These Hawkeyes are allowing 10.2 and haven’t yielded more than 17 to any opponent (including against the high-powered offenses of Iowa State and Penn State).
Yet Iowa defensive coaches know they haven't been perfect. During his Wednesday-night appearance on the Hawk Central radio show in Des Moines, Iowa linebackers coach/assistant defensive coordinator Seth Wallace pointed to third-down defensive struggles (Penn State was 10 of 19) and a lack of turnovers (Iowa forced none and has created just one in the last three games) as failures to helping kick-start a struggling offense that was crippled by poor field position.
“The biggest thing is understanding that it is a team game,” Wallace said. “There are three phases, and (each) phase is going to factor into the success or the lack thereof in each week. It is one of those deals where you’ve got to have different units pick up each other as you go.”
That certainly could include this week. Iowa’s defense allowed 38 points to Purdue in a shootout loss a year ago, and has a unique challenge this week against Jeff Brohm’s Boilermakers (11 a.m. Saturday, ESPN2).
Purdue has punched Iowa repeatedly with deep passes in back-to-back wins against the Hawkeyes. An 82-yard touchdown pass on its first second-half play from scrimmage put the Boilermakers in control a year ago.
Wallace said a big focus in practice this week has been reminding his players “that this is the DNA of this Purdue team. When you don’t think they’re going to take a shot, they’re going to take a shot.”
Wallace didn’t commit to Iowa unveiling a 4-2-5 this week.
But he did comment on the fact that Iowa linebackers were beaten in coverage on three K.J. Hamler catches (including a 22-yard touchdown) during Penn State’s game-turning, 85-yard drive in the second quarter of a 17-12 Iowa loss.
“The plan was not to be manned up on K.J. Hamler with a linebacker,” he said. “You go back and look at it, we were not in man-to-man coverage, we were in zone coverage.
“The one thing about zone coverages is there are seams or spots in them where you’re maybe a little bit weak. You go back to that drive you’re talking about, they caught us in some of those spots where it was outside a linebacker and inside a defensive back. Or maybe we just didn’t execute very well. But I would compliment (Penn State’s) execution. It’s also a real good football player you’re going against.”
True freshman Jack Campbell won’t redshirt and has been impressive.
Wallace made the revealing comment that Campbell, a rookie from Cedar Falls, is among those “on the fringe” of being a part of Iowa’s on-field linebacker group. Campbell (6-foot-4, 218 pounds) has played four games on special teams and will burn his redshirt by playing a fifth Saturday against Purdue.
“Since he’s gotten here, he’s had a very serious approach,” Wallace said. “He’s got a maturity to him that is probably a little bit ahead of schedule; ahead of where a typical freshman would be.”
Wallace said Campbell, Barrington Wade, Dillon Doyle and Seth Benson are all pushing starters Kristian Welch (who was injured in the Penn State game, leaving his status this week uncertain), Djimon Colbert and Nick Niemann. He would feel comfortable with any of those seven in a game.
And then there’s true freshman Jestin Jacobs, perhaps the crown jewel of Iowa’s 2019 recruiting class after the Hawkeyes fought off Ohio State down the stretch. Jacobs (6-4, 220) has been a part of Iowa’s travel roster and impressed coaches. Wallace said Jacobs’ fast development is similar to Campbell’s, but he probably needs to add muscle.
“When I say close, he’s probably not on the fringe,” Wallace said, “but he might be a sand wedge away.”