One last regular-season challenge for Iowa's vaunted defense — slowing Adrian Martinez

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The containment message came loud and clear last Saturday, as Brandon Peters found hole after hole in Iowa’s normally robust defense. If the words didn’t register then, the Hawkeyes are about to hear them all the way until a Black Friday kickoff.

“It started last week during the game when (Illinois quarterback Brandon) Peters was breaking off some stuff,” Iowa defensive end Chauncey Golston said. “(Defensive line) coach (Kelvin) Bell was talking to us about containment after the game.

“That’s just carried over throughout this week, because this is a guy who’ll tuck it and run.”

Iowa knows "this guy" well. The No. 20 Hawkeyes (8-3, 5-3 Big Ten Conference) will get their second crack Friday at Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez — a dual-threat quarterback in every sense of the moniker.

As the sturdiest pillar this season, Iowa’s 2019 defense hasn’t failed many challenges. But it’ll need to be sharper against Martinez than it was last week against the scrambling Peters.

Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez was the Cornhuskers' leading rusher last year in Kinnick Stadium. He'll for sure be looking to take off again, when Iowa comes to town this Friday.

“We definitely need to improve a little bit from last week on containing the quarterback,” safety Jack Koerner said. “It’s going to be a big factor this week … I think we just lost contain on Peters a few times, and that’s something we definitely want to improve on this week. We’ve got a guy who’s even more dangerous, so that’s something we’re definitely focusing on.”        

Entering the Illinois affair, Iowa had surrendered just 111 ground yards to quarterbacks through 10 games. That number is a bit deceiving, considering sacks are factored in. Yet, against the likes of Iowa State’s Brock Purdy, Penn State’s Sean Clifford and Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan, the Hawkeyes' efforts were sufficient.

Then came Peters, who accounted for more than 50 percent of his season rush yards on 10 Kinnick carries. Three of his carries picked up first downs. Peters’ 37-yard gain to open the third quarter, where Iowa bit hard on a fake pitch and watched as the Illinois quarterback darted past flailing linebackers, punctuated his big day.

Martinez can attack in the same manner and then some. It’s been a circuitous sophomore season plagued by injury, inconsistency and Nebraska’s overall failed expectations, but Martinez can salvage it with a clutch performance in a pivotal spot. Desperation is motivation in the Husker camp.

Iowa is catching Martinez off his best showing in a while. Granted, all of Nebraska got right in last week’s 54-7 drubbing of lowly Maryland — but especially Martinez, who had his highest rushing total in two months (94 yards) while setting a season-high in yards per carry (9.4). Freshman Luke McCaffery pounced as well on his heftiest workload, scampering for 83 yards and a score on 10 touches.  

For Nebraska, it was a welcomed sign, given how the last six weeks have unfolded. Martinez’s knee injury suffered Oct. 5 versus Northwestern sidelined him in losses to Minnesota and Indiana, igniting a four-game skid. After returning earlier this month at Purdue, Martinez has gradually increased his rushing prowess.

Success in the run-pass option is the fulcrum to Martinez’s game. It showed up last year when he ran for 76 yards and a score — along with passing for 260 yards and two touchdowns — as Nebraska nearly soured Iowa’s senior day. The Hawkeyes respect what they’re about to encounter.

“The added dimension — (Martinez) is the second-leading rusher on their football team — so that's a big part of what they do and what he does,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Once he got going last year, I mean — they ran it a lot of times — what happened? We couldn't stop him, we couldn't slow him down, we couldn't contain him. So that's a real concern for us right now.

“How are we going to try to keep him, limit him to what he does or what he can do? Because we had a real problem last year.”   

Consider it one last chance for Iowa’s defense to shine amid regular preparation conditions. Hawkeye defenders weren’t biting on reflection questions this week, opting to save those conversations for season’s end. That doesn’t mean we can’t, though.

The numbers are impressive across the board. The defense ranks fifth nationally in scoring (12.2 points per game). First-down, rushing and passing defense figures are all inside the top 25. This unit has kept Iowa in games, despite offensive no-shows.

No one wants a finish-line collapse.

“The season’s still going. You can’t kick your feet up,” Golston said. “That would be disrespectful to the opponent. We’ve still got more games left. That’s how you go out there and not show up.”  

A Friday no-show would certainly zap any momentum Iowa has created of late and do harm in the bowl process. That 10-win chatter? Gone. The Heroes Trophy case? Empty for the first time since 2014. The rivalry justification talk that always seems to swirl this week? As loud as ever.

Squashing all those hypotheticals starts with stifling Martinez.

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.