Iowa football's defense isn't meeting 'the standard.' A return to the norm could spark the entire team.
Almost no one would blame Iowa's defense for last Saturday's 27-7 loss against Wisconsin.
Three times the Wisconsin offense started a drive inside Iowa's 10-yard line but scored only 10 points on those possessions. The Hawkeyes surrendered 270 total yards compared to the 381 yards Wisconsin was averaging in its three previous games, and 3.5 yards per rush compared to 5.5 in that same time span.
From the outside looking in, that's an admirable effort given the circumstances. But the Hawkeye defense is viewing its performance with a different lens.
"We just didn't execute good enough," linebacker Seth Benson said following the game. "We didn't make plays when we needed to make them. We just have to learn from it and come back better next week."
The Iowa defense allowed 166 rushing yards against Wisconsin, nearly double its season average of 89 rushing yards allowed. And the Badgers' 27-point output broke Iowa's 29-game streak of holding opponents under 25 points.
Those metrics don't meet "the standard" that Iowa defenders speak of weekly, but it extends beyond the most recent game.
Two weeks ago the defense had its worst showing of the season against Purdue. The Boilermakers totaled 464 total yards (378 passing), converted 56% of their third-down attempts and compiled nearly 35 minutes time of possession. Before that came Penn State. The Hawkeye defense eventually settled down, but prior to quarterback Sean Clifford's injury the Hawkeyes surrendered more points (17) in a quarter and a half than their season average to that point (11.6).
The most apparent sign of the defense not attaining the standard is lack of forced turnovers. In their first six games, the Hawkeyes forced 19 turnovers. They've had none in the last two games. The Hawkeyes are minus-6 in turnover margin in their two-game skid.
That's been the focus of Iowa's defense this week: returning to the standard.
"People may think we're playing well but we turn on the film (and) there's so much more each individual player can do," linebacker Jestin Jacobs said. "We just have to look at the film and see what we can do better and just act on that."
How does Iowa's next opponent, Northwestern, compare to Iowa's previous opponents? In terms of total yardage the Wildcats rank just ahead of Iowa in the Big Ten (11th) with 313 yards per game. Their offense is similar to Wisconsin's in that they don't cough up the football. Northwestern is tied for first in the conference in fewest giveaways (4), including just one interception.
The Hawkeyes again are expected to be without two of their top cornerbacks, Riley Moss and Terry Roberts. That leaves sophomore and Chicago native Jermari Harris to make his second consecutive start on Saturday.
"You always worry about a new guy maybe being a little too anxious or too jumpy out there," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "But I think he handled the situation pretty well. (Northwestern) is going to be another test for him, and probably see a few more passes this week. Maybe not, but I would expect we might."
Against an opponent that's known for protecting the ball, how does Iowa return to wreaking havoc? As always, it comes back to preparation.
"(Northwestern) will do a little bit of everything, running 'wildcat' and imbalanced (sets)," Jacobs said. "We just have to read our keys, have good communication and if we do that then we should get back to our turnover ways."
Much has been made in recent weeks about Iowa's offensive struggles. The defense feels a responsibility to pick up the offense during those lulls. There was an unquestioned positive correlation between turnovers forced leading to offensive success during the team's 6-0 start.
"Sometimes we have to step up and make a play if things aren't going our way in whatever phase of the game it is," linebacker Jack Campbell said. "That's one thing (defensive coordinator Phil Parker) has been preaching and also the simple fundamental stuff that if we do, we'll be successful."
And even if they're not forcing turnovers, just getting stops in timely situations can help the offense get back to the favorable field positions they saw in the first six games.
"I feel like if we got off the field earlier we could've set up a better punt return and had better field position," Campbell said. "Sometimes we let them get out to midfield and pin us back and that's a tough position for the offense to be in so I think it starts right there, just getting off the field on third down."
The capabilities of Iowa's defense are not in question. They lead the conference in takeaways and rank second behind Wisconsin in total defense. But within the facility, the Hawkeyes hold themselves to a level that goes beyond raw statistics. That standard is difficult to live up to but also what helps make this unit great year after year.
A return to that standard, to complementary football, will help get the Hawkeyes back in the win column.
"It's just about trying to match up this week against Northwestern," Ferentz said. "Facing the challenges that they're going to present for us and see if we can get a plan to stop them, and then if we can get some takeaways, that would really help us. They come from being aggressive and being sound, and that's where it all starts."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com.