How does a depleted Iowa defense match up against Nebraska? 'It doesn't matter'
Iowa's defense had a much-needed bounce back performance against Illinois and did so without two important pieces.
Defensive backs Matt Hankins and Jack Koerner were late scratches Saturday to undisclosed injuries but it didn't stop the Hawkeye defense from limiting the Illini to 25% on third down, 66 total rushing yards and forcing two turnovers.
That's a stark contrast compared to their previous four games: 41% allowed third down conversions, 133.5 rushing yards allowed per game and three forced turnovers, all against Northwestern. And they did it with two backups — Jermari Harris in place of Hankins and Quinn Schulte for Koerner.
"That’s just next man in mentality," defensive back Dane Belton said after the 33-23 win. "Everyone is held to the same standard. It is kind of a pressure on (the backups), like, ‘I might be two or three on the depth chart, but I can be thrown into the game, and I have to make a play, too.’”
It's likely that on a short week upcoming the Iowa defense, in particular the secondary, will be shorthanded again. Kirk Ferentz said post game that Hankins has "a ways to go" and on Monday, Hankins wasn't listed on the depth char. Meanwhile, Koerner was listed as the No. 1 free safety with Schulte behind him.
Cornerback Terry Roberts (bone bruise) was left off as well. True freshman Cooper DeJean and senior Xavior Williams are listed as the No. 2 cornerbacks behind Harris and Riley Moss.
Statistically, they'll face their toughest challenge yet on Friday against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers are second in the Big Ten in total offense (485 yards per game), but received tough injury news of their own on Monday. Head coach Scott Frost announced on Monday that four-year starting quarterback Adrian Martinez will miss Friday's game due to a shoulder injury. Redshirt freshman Logan Smothers, a former four-star recruit, will start in his place.
Opposing starting quarterback aside, what can fans expect from Iowa's defense schematically? Likely more variety looks with Harris and potentially Schulte if Koerner isn't able to play the full game.
Harris saw his first start against Wisconsin and has been a solid contributor since. In three starts this year, Harris has an average grade of 65.1 via Pro Football Focus and was Iowa's top-graded defensive back against Northwestern (71.9).
Schulte, a sophomore from Cedar Rapids, saw his first significant snap count of the season against Illinois. Just as much as on-field playmaking, Iowa misses Koerner's communication as the 'quarterback of the defense' when he's not on the field. Ferentz thought Schulte, a former high school quarterback himself, filled in nicely in sharing calls with fellow safeties Belton and Kaevon Merriweather.
"He stepped in and allowed us to keep doing the things we want to do," Ferentz said. "So it was either Dane and Kaevon (Merriweather) back there or if Dane was down, Quinn was in there. He played a lot of snaps (Saturday). Did a good job."
Schulte played nearly half (28) of the 61 defensive snaps and received a 66.1 grade via Pro Football Focus. Those plays were split between Iowa's base 4-2-5 look and the newly introduced 3-3-5 which places linebacker Jestin Jacobs on the field with five defensive backs. The other 33 plays were in Iowa's 4-3 look which means Jacobs saw an uptick in snaps.
Pre-injury announcement, Iowa's top priority on defense this week was stopping Martinez. The senior is not only ranked fourth in the Big Ten in passing but he leads the Cornhuskers in rushing yards. Smothers is a dual-threat quarterback as well but only has 11 pass attempts and 13 rushing attempts this year.
Where Iowa could've taken advantage against Martinez could still be the game plan for Smothers: Win in the turnover game.
The Hawkeyes are first in the Big Ten and fourth in the nation in forced turnovers (25). This season, Martinez threw a career-high 10 interceptions and has 34 career fumbles including seven this year.
The majority of these mistakes were made under duress. Martinez threw at least one interception in six games this year, in those games the opposing teams recorded at least five sacks three times and averaged three sacks per game total. Nebraska is 0-6 in those games.
Comparatively, Iowa is averaging about two sacks and three quarterback hurries per game during their three game winning streak. But with a far less experienced player will Phil Parker call more blitzes than normal? A havoc-wreaking day by Iowa's front seven would set up plenty of opportunities to feast on potential mistakes.
A Friday game means one less day to recover and less time to manage injuries but players were not making excuses following the Illinois game. Any return by an injured defensive back is welcomed but they believe strongly in their week-to-week preparation and have full confidence in whoever suits up against Nebraska.
"Some people go down, you never know who's going to be in next," Belton said. "If I get beat, no one's going to say 'You're a third-teamer.' It doesn't matter. We're all held to the same standard. It's just in the way that we prepare."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.