How Iowa football's Jack Campbell, Seth Benson make Hawkeyes' defense elite

During Iowa's season opener against Purdue last year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced thousands of would be in-person attendees to watch from their homes. 

Two others also missed the game. That was Hawkeye linebackers Seth Benson and Jack Campbell, both to illnesses. Benson had COVID and Campbell was out with mononucleosis.

Iowa fell to Purdue 24-20, marking their third loss to the Boilermakers in four years. 

"Those situations are always tough," Campbell said. "Deep down inside watching it on TV is not the same as playing, and it does kind of hurt because you work your tail off in January up until that point in the season."

Both players did their part to act as unofficial player-coaches leading up to the October 24, 2020, contest. Iowa still fielded a talented linebacker bunch with current NFL players Nick Niemann and Barrington Wade, but depth suffered without two starting-level players. 

Benson returned the next week against Northwestern with 13 tackles and didn't miss another game for the rest of the season. Campbell's absence was longer, with three games missed. Like most injured players, when they returned, they did so with more appreciation. 

"That's something that's stuck with me, the opportunity I have," Campbell said. "I kind of remind myself of that during (The Wave), taking a break from the rush of the game to think about how blessed I am to have this opportunity." 

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Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell (31) is second in the Big Ten in tackles this season. His play this year has elevated his name nationally as a top linebacker.

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And they've made the most of that opportunity over the last year. Iowa's undefeated with Benson and Campbell in the starting lineup since Campbell's return (11-0). This season, they're first and second on the team in total tackles (Campbell 58, Benson 38). 

Iowa's third nationally in scoring defense (13 points per game) eighth in total defense (274 yards per game) and first in takeaways (16). According to safety Jack Koerner, it all starts with their two starting linebackers in the middle. 

"Those guys are like the heart of our defense," Koerner said. "The dedication it takes to be a linebacker and be able to recognize what an offensive line is doing and understanding what their passing concepts are to get our defensive line in the right fronts, they're committed to that and obviously it's been helping us a lot on defense." 

Campbell has emerged as an elite defender in the conference. His 58 tackles ranks second in the Big Ten and earned Bronko Nagurski National Player and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors for his 18-tackle performance against Colorado State last month. 

"He probably would be a little better known, quite frankly, if he had played the full season last year," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "He's a really good football player. He's practiced well and now he's gotten his opportunity and he's playing at a really high level. So we got a lot of good leaders on that defense and he's certainly one of them." 

Iowa linebacker Seth Benson (44) is one of Iowa's two starting linebackers in their base defensive look. Safety Jack Koerner described Benson and fellow starter Jack Campbell as "the heart of our defense."

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How will Benson and Campbell make their presence felt against Purdue? Through the air, the Boilermakers have the second-rated pass offense in the Big Ten (325.4 pass yards per game) and one of the conference's top receivers in David Bell.

When called upon, both linebackers are effective blitzers. Against Penn State, Benson nearly sacked quarterback Sean Clifford in the end zone and affected his throw that resulted in an interception. A little later, Campbell knocked Clifford out of the game on a quarterback hit when he ran uncontested through their offensive line. 

On the ground, Purdue is the last ranked rushing offense in the Big Ten but the Boilermakers had a successful day against Iowa last season; senior running back Zander Horvath totaled 129 rushing yards on 21 carries (6.1 yards per carry). However, Horvath will miss the game to injury. Iowa linebackers will need to aware of junior King Doerue, who is averaging 4.6 yards per carry on 48 attempts. 

Purdue's recent offensive success is the next challenge for defensive coordinator Phil Parker and the defense. They're hoping that previous tough lessons will translate into better results on Saturday.  

“Re-watching the game tape, we’re seeing all the places we’re so much better at right now," Koerner said. "We’re so much more experienced than we were last year. We’re hoping that carries over Saturday.”

Part of that growth in experience is younger players like sophomore linebacker Jestin Jacobs filling in for Campbell and Benson's absence last year, especially against Purdue. So far this year, Jacobs' improvement has been exponential, he ranks fourth on the team with 31 tackles and recorded the interception on Benson's pressure. His emergence gives the Hawkeyes yet another weapon at linebacker. 

"We certainly thought they had great potential," Ferentz said of his linebacker unit. "I felt pretty good about our 7-on-7 guys and the linebackers included there, we have seen enough of them to know that they're capable of playing pretty well." 

Iowa's favored by nearly 12 points but aren't allowing that to underestimate Purdue. What's the key in overcoming their recent Boilermaker slump?

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Nothing special, according to Campbell: Just continue to build on their successful strategy over the first six weeks of this season. 

"It's all going to start with how we approach this game," Campbell said. "I feel like up to this point we've done a good job of taking it one week at a time and we need to continue to do that. But Purdue's got a very talented team so just being able to play good, team defense is going to be important." 

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 ksmith@gannett.com