Analysis: Iowa defensive line has become a force, and Penn State felt its wrath
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Daviyon Nixon knew where the football was going when he drifted into the left flat late in Saturday’s game.
More importantly, Nixon knew where the football was going to end up. In his hands. In the north end zone of Beaver Stadium.
Nixon is a 305-pound defensive tackle for Iowa who seems to believe he’s actually a skill position guy. He made the play of the game with 2 minutes left, intercepting a Sean Clifford pass, running straight at the Penn State quarterback before nimbly shifting to his right and sprinting 71 yards to seal a 41-21 Hawkeyes win.
It was the first touchdown at any level of football for Nixon, he said afterward. And there was no way he was going to slide to the turf and let his team run out the clock.
Not when he had a chance to put a juke move on a quarterback and show off his speed.
“I didn’t even hear anyone say to get down,” Nixon said. “I just knew that, once the ball was in my hands, that I was getting to the end zone. That was my goal. I had to score.”
Nixon’s first college interception came when Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker called for a blitz on Clifford, something that had been effective late with the Hawkeyes trying to protect a lead that had shrunk from 24 points to 10. Nixon leads Iowa with 8.5 tackles for loss. On this play, however, he wasn’t asked to rush the quarterback, but rather to surprise him. Clifford clearly had no idea that there was one 305-pound obstacle in the way of an easy completion to a running back along the sideline.
“My job at that point was to get outside contain, and the quarterback’s been dumping it down to the running back the whole game to the flat. And I just kind of waited for his eyes to get big. And once I seen him about to throw it, I knew that that was the moment I was about to get the pick,” Nixon said.
It was the fourth Penn State turnover of the game. All of them were forced by an Iowa defensive line that has become a force in recent weeks. The Hawkeyes turned two fumbles and two interceptions into 24 points.
It wasn’t long ago that the Hawkeyes' front four was the subject of a lot of hand-wringing, with fans wondering who would pressure opposing quarterbacks once star defensive end A.J. Epenesa departed for the NFL. It turns out that Iowa had the answers all along, starting with Nixon and his team-leading four sacks.
Joining him Saturday were defensive end Zach VanValkenburg, who had 1.5 tackles for loss and recovered two fumbles. Both of those became Hawkeye touchdowns.
“Absolute pure luck,” VanValkenburg called his recoveries, crediting his teammates instead for knocking the football loose. “That’s why they tell you to run to the ball.”
VanValkenburg was being modest. He was coming off a three-sack performance in a win over Minnesota that led to him being named the Big Ten Conference’s defensive player of the week. He has put together three strong games in a row, and he said it’s happened because his goal now is to make plays of impact rather than just being mistake-free.
Opposite him, senior defensive end Chauncey Golston came up with one sack, another tackle for loss on Penn State’s second play of the game, and a fourth-quarter interception that set up a Hawkeye field goal. Nixon deflected that pass, on another play when Parker called for a blitz of Clifford.
Starting defensive tackle Jack Heflin also had a sack Saturday.
That’s six tackles for loss and four turnovers from Iowa’s starting front four. And that doesn’t include perhaps the most impressive thing they did.
The Hawkeyes allowed Penn State starting quarterback Will Levis to run up the middle seven times for 44 yards during a first-quarter scoring drive that gave the home team a 7-3 lead. It was a troubling sequence for a team that had allowed Penn State to average 233 yards rushing per game in their past six meetings, all of them Hawkeye losses.
The Nittany Lions ended up with just 62 rushing yards Saturday. The middle of Iowa’s defense was a wall for the final three quarters. Twice in the second quarter, the Hawkeyes forced Penn State to surrender the football after not allowing short-yardage conversions on third and fourth downs. That is essentially six turnovers you can credit to the defensive line.
“It really just comes down to playing our assignments. It wasn’t anything crazy. They weren’t gashing us, just little chunks, just death by inches,” VanValkenburg said. “And we did a good job of closing that down.
“I think we have a lot of really good synergy as a unit, and obviously that showed (Saturday).”
The transformation the defensive front has made during Iowa’s three-game winning streak is that it is able to take over a game, not just talk about it.
“We were less than impressive in my opinion three weeks ago, four weeks ago. It started with the run. We were too soft on the run. And I know a lot of questions were asked about, were we going to get pressure?” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of his defensive front.
“I’m pleased with the progress. But hopefully we’ve got a lot more left in us.”
There are signs that Iowa does. Reserve defensive tackle Noah Shannon broke up a pass Saturday. True freshman defensive end Yahya Black was in on a stop for a one-yard loss. He played in place of John Waggoner, who is out with an injury but expected back soon.
Iowa’s defensive line is getting reinforcements. It’s also getting Nixon’s seal of approval. Iowa lost its first two games of the season when Nixon was the only defensive lineman playing at a high level. That’s no longer the case.
“We know that this team feeds off our energy and that everything we do starts up front,” Nixon said. “We know we’ve got to go out every game, every snap, every series, every play and try to make a difference in the game.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.