How the Iowa Hawkeye defense bounced back after rough start to stifle Penn State
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz and his players were quick to admit that the Hawkeyes' elite defense was wobbly for a while against Penn State.
So what happened to help the Hawkeyes go from shaky to swarming on defense in No. 3 Iowa's 23-20 epic over No. Penn State?
Despite some early mistakes, Penn State's offense — led at that time by quarterback Sean Clifford — scored on three of four possessions and claimed a 17-3 lead in the midway through the second quarter.
What was happening? First, Iowa's defense played their most talented offense yet and that offense was running at an up-tempo rate that made it difficult to defend.
A staple of defensive coordinator Phil Parker's scheme is understanding the assignment on each play and being in correct position. Penn State's consistent progression down the field early combined with their quick snap speed caused Iowa's defenders to be lined up incorrectly more often than not.
These won't count as "big plays," according to Iowa's metric (25-plus yard plays), but on Penn State's first touchdown drive, Clifford completed three different passes of at least 15 yards to three different receivers.
"They were trying to set the defense the wrong way and confuse guys' eyes," Iowa safety Jack Koerner said. "Just understanding that they were trying to do that, getting to where we could get lined up fast and they wouldn't catch us in the wrong defense was really important because they were catching us on that earlier."
Eventually the Hawkeyes settled down.
Penn State converted their first five third downs of the game, after that they went 0-for-11. Jahan Dotson, one of the most dangerous offensive threats in college football, was targeted 17 times but only managed 48 yards on eight catches.
What changed? One part was adjusting on defense. The other part was Jack Campbell's game-defining hit on Clifford that knocked Penn State's talented dual-threat out of the game.
Penn State backup quarterback Ta'Quan Roberson was a four-star recruit out of Wayne, New Jersey in the class of 2018. However, he only had a small fraction of the experience that Clifford had.
And Iowa took advantage.
"I think (Roberson) only had seven passes on the season," defensive lineman Logan Lee said. "We talked about that at halftime. Our coaches let us know that he was going to try to run the ball."
Penn State's offense became one dimensional, and Iowa's defense stifled them in the second half. Starting running back Noah Cain only ran for 15 yards on the day and by game's end, Clifford, who only played a quarter and a half, was the team's leading rusher with 36 yards.
The Hawkeyes held Penn State's offense to 91 yards of total offense after Clifford's injury. They preserved their consecutive game streak of not allowing more than 24 points for the 28th straight contest and in total forced four turnovers, all interceptions. Entering Saturday's game, Penn Sate committed the fewest turnovers in the Big Ten (3).
An added element that made Iowa's defensive stand impressive was they did so without senior cornerback Riley Moss, who left the game right before halftime with a leg injury. Backup Terry Roberts entered the game in his place and held up opposite of cornerback Matt Hankins without a hiccup. Another testament to the secondary which has been a catalyst for Iowa's defense all season.
Iowa's defense has made a living this year on being at the right place at the right time. The number of opportunities to create turnovers is a direct reflection of their preparation. And they've capitalized on nearly every opportunity.
The secondary in particular has led the way this year with 14 of the team's 16 interceptions, which is the most in the country. They've cashed in on more opportunities than any other secondary and thus, their very-fitting nickname is "the dough boys," according to cornerback Matt Hankins.
"We got to get to the money," Hankins explained. "The ball is the money and as you can see this season we've been getting to the money."
Iowa's defense also received a strong assist form the special teams unit. Three times punter Tory Taylor pinned the Nittany Lions inside their 3-yard line. The defensive result on each of those instances: Interception, interception and then a 3-and-out that Iowa's offense turned into a field goal to cut the deficit to 20-16 in the fourth quarter.
"Tory had a great game," Lee said. "The gunners did a great job of getting to the ball and making sure it didn't get into the end zone. That really set us up for the offense to get in good field position."
For the first time this season, Iowa's defense was stressed for an extended period of time. Despite the early adversity, the end result produced its usual result: Another dominant showing.
However a challenge lies ahead: Purdue. And Jeff Brohm's offense has historically given Iowa fits.
With one more week until the bye week, Ferentz and his staff's challenge will be honing the defense in after the most emotional win of the season and avoiding a letdown next Saturday.
"As soon as you start thinking things are a little bit easy is when the door slams right in your face," Ferentz said. "So that's the trick, you have to get everyone else to understand that. We've been there and we've had games right out here not that long ago that were disappointing so it's not ancient history."
Kennington Smith is the Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.