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Analysis: Iowa defense forces Illinois into eight fruitless possessions to key victory

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — If you ask Iowa’s defensive players, there are no tactical adjustments, no sideline lectures required to turn a football game on its head.

All that’s needed is the confidence that no Big Ten Conference offense is built to succeed for long against a Hawkeyes defense that is the identity of the team.

The latest case in point came Saturday in Memorial Stadium, where Illinois looked like it was about to run away from its guests, only to discover a brick wall. By the time the Illini stopped ramming into it, the Hawkeyes had taken control en route to a 35-21 victory, its seventh in a row in this rivalry.

“The tape just speaks for itself,” Iowa defensive end Chauncey Golston shrugged when asked to explain what transpired in the second and third quarters, when Illinois (2-4) had eight fruitless possessions after racing to a 14-0 lead.

A swarming Iowa defense led by Zach VanValkenburg (97) and Nick Niemann (49) makes a stop Saturday against Illinois. The Hawkeyes forced six punts to take control in a 35-21 win.

Here’s what Iowa’s defense did to ensure its 21st consecutive game of holding an opponent below 25 points, the longest streak in the nation among Power Five teams:

  • In the final 11 minutes and 51 seconds of the second quarter, Illinois ran 10 plays for a grand total of 0 yards.
  • In the opening 16:35 of the second half, the Illini tried another 18 plays and mustered only 47 yards.
  • Illinois had eight possessions after earning its two-touchdown lead, ending in six punts, a kneel-down before halftime, and a failed fourth down in the red zone.

More:Chauncey Golston shows his value as Iowa's 'other' defensive end

Iowa’s offense used that grace period to put up 35 points to cement a fifth consecutive victory. Yes, there were impressive moments for quarterback Spencer Petras and the Hawkeye offense. But, make no mistake, it was the defense that created the comfort zone for that to happen. The Hawkeyes started three scoring drives at their 48-, 46-, and 47-yard lines, and another from the Illinois 32.

“Any team sport, if you pay attention, if you can play defense, at least you have a chance to be competitive, and be competitive consistently,” Kirk Ferentz said after earning win No. 167 in his 22 years as Iowa’s head coach.

“If I can pick one thing that we were trying to be consistent in, it starts with defense.”

It started up front for Iowa. Illinois had 53 yards rushing in the first quarter, and Brandon Peters had enough time to throw two scoring passes. The next six Illinois rushing attempts netted three yards.

With that avenue shut down, the Hawkeyes were able to harass Peters, who completed his first eight passes, but just two of his next 10 and was eventually benched.

Golston, a senior, matched his career-high with eight tackles and brilliantly sealed his end of the line.

In the middle, as always this season, Daviyon Nixon was unbending and unrelenting. He had another 1.5 tackles for loss to bring his Big Ten Conference-leading total to 13.

“We really didn’t have any adjustments,” Nixon said. “We just came together as a team and told ourselves that it’s up to us to make a stand and make a difference in this game, and that’s what we decided. We can either fold, or we can fight.”

More:Daviyon Nixon is an emerging Hawkeye star trying to get his teammates to follow his lead

Last week, Iowa’s defense held Nebraska scoreless for the final 27 minutes while the offense rallied for a 26-20 victory.

The week before that, Penn State was blanked in the fourth quarter of a 41-21 win.

Minnesota didn’t score until the final minute of a 35-7 loss; Michigan State got its lone touchdown on the opening drive of the second half in a 49-7 shellacking.

Iowa is ranked 24th and carries a 5-2 record into next Saturday’s home game against Wisconsin because the defense chokes off scoring chances and keeps it in every game.

The 14-0 deficit Saturday was the largest of the season for the Hawkeyes. Nixon said it happened because “we were just running around trying to make plays” instead of tending to individual assignments.

Once everyone stopped trying to be a hero, the defense was able to follow a script that has been proven to work. Time after time.

“It wasn’t much to look at, but nobody came unglued,” Ferentz said of the opening minutes of the game.

Nixon said the defensive front took it upon itself to be the glue.

“When our defensive line is humming,” he said, “then the rest of the team is going to as well.”

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.