How Iowa football defenders plan to slow down Indiana's quick-pass attack

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Almost every coach and player will tell you that stopping the run is the defense's top priority. In Iowa's season opener against Indiana, players will still prioritize the run, but there's another method of ball movement the Hoosiers favor that's equally effective: the short-pass game. 

Last season, Indiana ranked 12th in the Big Ten in rushing yards (869), but their lack of rushing production is largely by design. The Hoosiers run the ball in short-yardage and advantageous situations but also utilize short passes to supplement the running game. 

And it's possible to see an even heavier dose of the quick-pass game on Sept. 4 because of inexperience in Indiana's running back room. Their top returning runner, sophomore Tim Baldwin, had only 22 carries last season. 

"We don't know much about the running backs and who will be in there," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz told reporters Tuesday. "But, yeah, they do a good job in the throw game too. Really good. And they have good receivers. (Ty Fryfogle) is as good as we're going to play against. But the guy that really makes them go is (quarterback Michael Penix Jr.). And having him back, we expect him to be a challenge for us.

"They can hit you in a lot of different ways."

The Hoosiers welcome former five-star running back Stephen Carr from USC via the transfer portal so there's added talent in the backfield. Overall, their two-prong attack will give Iowa's defense a different look than that of other teams.

"It challenges us to play sideline to sideline," veteran defensive back Dane Belton said. "They use the quick pass as an extension of the run game so, (if) they throw that quick pass, as a defense we've got to pursue. It's about conditioning, getting out and pursuing. That's probably our biggest challenge." 

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An example to best illustrate Indiana's attack is their 2019 game against Michigan State. During the second quarter, Penix completed 20 consecutive passes. Of those, 13 were completed behind the line of scrimmage. 

Screens of all variations, swing passes and timing throws are the Hoosiers' norm to control the tempo just as an effective running game would. 

What's the key in stopping such a strategy?

According to linebacker Jack Campbell, it starts with communication. 

"With the defensive line and (secondary)," Campbell said. "Just getting us in the right call to be able to play whatever formation they give us. I think the biggest thing is limiting the mental errors to keep our foot on the gas for the whole game." 

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Another aspect of Indiana's game plan will be utilizing the run-pass option. Plays can result in handoffs to the running back, a short pass ahead of the line of scrimmage such as a slant, or a screen behind the line. The same-look formation could yield a different play each time.

Then there's the next-biggest part of slowing the attack: play recognition. 

"Being able to tell the people who need to know what's about to happen," Campbell said. "Then also just being disciplined with your eyes, your feet, everything and going out there and doing it." 

Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell speaks to reporters during a fall Hawkeyes football media availability, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in Iowa City, Iowa.

Overall, it'll be a team effort to slow the Hoosiers down. The defensive line's priority will still be stopping the run. The linebackers will need to make open-field tackles when opportunities arrive. 

For Indiana receivers' direct matchup, Iowa's secondary, the challenge is a combination of all of these things: play recognition, understanding your assignment and shedding screen blocks to make tackles. Block shedding is something that's been a priority throughout the year dating back to spring. 

"We do that every week," Moss said. "It kind of just fits into what we do in practice every day. I've never really backed down from anything and neither has (Matt Hankins). We love coming up and hitting. I know with corners that's the stereotype — we don't like to hit, but (Matt and I) don't like to play like that." 

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The veteran experience in Iowa's back seven could work in their favor against Indiana's pass-catchers. That will make communication easier, especially when, for the first time in almost two years, fans will be at maximum volume when they're on the field. 

Communication will continue to be a point of emphasis leading up to Saturday.

"The simple, easy answer is everyone does their job," Moss said. "Everyone does their job and usually, for the most part, we come out with the win. So (the key is) focusing on those little things in practice so they can carry over to the game." 

Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com