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Young Iowa defense knows it will be tested through the air in season-opener at Purdue

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Iowa’s defense knows what’s coming from Purdue’s offense, even if Boilermakers coach Jeff Brohm is watching from home after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

The Hawkeyes know what's coming, even if the Purdue starting quarterback remains a mystery right up until Saturday’s 2:40 p.m. kickoff at Ross-Ade Stadium. Even if star wide receiver Rondale Moore is out of the lineup, a fact revealed Friday.

David Bell will be at wide receiver, and he was nearly a one-man wrecking crew last season when the Hawkeyes hung on for a 26-20 home win over the Boilermakers..

“They throw the ball as well as anybody that we’ll face,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of the first opponent on the schedule of his 22nd season at the helm.

Brohm is being coy about his starting quarterback, saying he’s likely to use two from the group of Jack Plummer, Aidan O'Connell and Austin Burton. Not that it’s mattered who was throwing the passes the past three years when the Boilermakers faced Iowa.

In Brohm’s first showdown with Hawkeye defensive coordinator Phil Parker, it was Elijah Sindelar throwing for 229 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-15 victory in Iowa City. Anthony Mahoungou caught seven passes for 135 yards and two of the scores. Iowa’s defense did sack Sindelar four times, but never produced a turnover.

EARLIER:Personal touch: Iowa's Phil Parker nurtures talent on, off the field

Iowa cornerback Riley Moss and Purdue wide receiver matched up last season, when Bell caught 13 passes for 197 yards. But Moss had an interception and got the last laugh in a 26-20 Hawkeye win. They'll face off again Saturday in West Lafayette, Ind., in a delayed Big Ten Conference season-opener.

When the teams met in 2018 in West Lafayette, Purdue came out on top 38-36 after David Blough racked up 333 yards through the air, with four touchdowns. Terry Wright scored three of them, on six catches for 146 yards. The Hawkeyes did pick Blough off twice, but sacked him only once.

Last season at Kinnick Stadium, Iowa found a way to win 26-20 despite 327 yards and two touchdowns by Plummer, who connected with Bell an astonishing 13 times for 197 yards. On the season, Iowa’s defense allowed an average of 196 yards passing.

But what Iowa did well in that game, and will attempt again Saturday, is put pressure on Plummer, who dropped back to pass 51 times.

Riley Moss intercepted him once. John Waggoner sacked him once, the only one to the sophomore’s credit so far. Defensive end Chauncey Golston had a career-high three quarterback hurries. Defensive tackles Daviyon Nixon and Austin Schulte also forced Plummer to throw before he was ready.

Hawkeye cornerback Matt Hankins was up to the task when left in difficult one-on-one matchups in space, which Brohm always tries to exploit. Hankins had a career-high 11 tackles in that game, eight of them solo. He also recovered a fumble.

Dane Belton, then a freshman safety, added a career-high six tackles.

All of those players are on Iowa’s depth chart again this year. And all of them will be asked to be at their best Saturday, because this is a young Hawkeye defense unlikely to be whole all season.

Djimon Colbert was going to be the most experienced member of Iowa’s defense, with 23 career starts, but he has opted not to play in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That leaves senior Nick Niemann as the lone Hawkeye linebacker with much playing experience, and he said this week he’s preparing to play in the middle, which will be new for him. Alongside Niemann in Iowa’s 4-2-5 alignment will be a rotation that could include true freshman Jay Higgins, Ferentz said.

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Iowa wants to use five or even six defensive backs at a time Saturday, which means Hankins (19 starts) will be asked to lock down one side of the field, a challenge he said he’s been looking forward to for weeks. Moss and Julius Brents are the other top options at cornerback. Belton or Moss will play the cash position.

If it’s Moss, Belton will be at safety alongside Jack Koerner, with Kaevon Merriweather the top backup there. That’s assuming all are healthy and in uniform, which will be a question for Big Ten Conference teams all season as a positive test for the coronavirus can force anyone into isolation at any time.

If any Hawkeye defender proves to be a weak link, you can bet that Brian Brohm, the younger brother of Jeff who will be the acting head coach for this game, will continually pick on that player until he figures things out or Parker benches him.

Brents, an Indiana native who missed all but one game a year ago because of injury, said communication will be the key for the back seven of Iowa’s defense. They have faith that Parker will put in a game plan that will allow them to be effective if they follow it to the letter.

Niemann, who will be making his 14th career start, needs to be a calming force along with Hankins, when whoever Purdue’s quarterback is starts launching passes. The Hawkeyes are well aware that they’ve surrendered 660 passing yards to the Boilermakers the past two years.

That’s embarrassing for them. It’s also motivating.

“You’ve just got to beat that by playing great man and zone defense, using good fundamentals, getting re-routes on receivers, all those types of things,” Niemann said. “Just get them out of rhythm when they come to their pass concepts and their timing.”

IOWA AT PURDUE

WHEN: 2:40 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Ross-Ade Stadium, West Lafayette, Ind.

TV: Big Ten Network (Cory Provus, Anthony Herron, Coley Harvey)

LINE: Hawkeyes by 3

WEATHER: 51 degrees and partly cloudy skies; 5% chance of rain; winds from the northeast at 8 mph

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.