Iowa football's defense hopes for a bounce-back performance at Illinois

Iowa's defense had a little extra juice during this week's football practices.

The unit has been the strength of the team through the first half of the season, but the Hawkeye defenders struggled a bit last Saturday in a 27-14 loss to No. 4 ranked Michigan.

"I think we're all fired up on the defense, especially after Saturday not being our greatest performance," defensive tackle Noah Shannon said. "I think we're just all ready, like fired up and ready to go, and I think you can see it out on the practice field. Everyone's flying around, running to the ball and everything."

The Wolverines entered last Saturday as the nation's top offense, averaging 50 points per game. Iowa held them to a season low in points (27), total yards (327) and rushing yards (172). However, those marks were considerably higher than the season averages of Iowa's defense: 5.8 points per game, 236.2 total yards per game and 73 rushing yards allowed per game.

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Michigan did its damage early, scoring on four of its first five possessions, and dictated the pace throughout, holding a near 34-minute time of possession.

"We knew that they had a big-play, explosive offense," Shannon said. "But definitely we didn't come prepared. We didn't execute well enough at the end of the day. There's a lot we can still improve on and that's what's so fun about football, you're never 100 percent perfect."

Iowa plays at Illinois on Saturday (6:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network). The Illini aren't as athletically gifted as Michigan but possess similar threats that hurt Iowa last week. The catalyst for Michigan's offense was running back Blake Corum, the No. 4 rusher in the country. Illinois' Chase Brown is the nation's leader in rushing yards (733). And unlike past years, there is balance in the offense with transfer quarterback Tommy DeVito leading the group. He ranks second in the conference in passing touchdowns (nine) and fourth in completion percentage (69.9%).

Saturday's game marks a pivotal point in Iowa's season. It's the final game before the bye week, splitting the season into two six-game stretches. This game is also in between Michigan and No. 3 ranked Ohio State, Iowa's opponent after the off week. The Hawkeyes hold a 1-1 conference record, so a loss on Saturday coupled with a trip to Columbus post-bye would put their chances at contending for a Big Ten West title in serious jeopardy.

By all accounts, it's a must-win game. There's no question that Iowa's offense needs to take significant strides forward on Saturday, but the defense also needs to return to form in order for the team to pull off the upset in Champaign. Illinois is a 3 1/2-point favorite.

Iowa's defense surrendered season highs in points (27), total yards (327) and rushing yards (172) in last week's loss to Michigan. The unit is seeking a bounceback performance at Illinois on Saturday.

The silver lining that Iowa defenders came away with entering this week is that the proper adjustments aren't major or systematic, but a reinforcement of fundamentals. Michigan's offense controlled the pace by winning the battle at the line of scrimmage. Similarly, Illinois' offensive line is outstanding. It holds a significant size advantage (averaging 6-foot-5, 318 pounds) and will attempt to push back the Hawkeye front seven.

"I don't think it was anything too big other than eluding away from fundamentals we harp on every day," Shannon said. "It starts with pad level, knock back and separation. I think for me personally, I wasn't separating enough and separating leads to getting off blocks and making tackles. I feel like that's something I've really focused on this week is my separation and the ability to get off tackles and make plays in the backfield."

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Senior linebacker Jack Campbell noted that Illinois' offensive line is particularly good at knocking defensive linemen from their assigned gaps on run plays. When that happens, it puts the linebackers in a tough position as they have to make snap decisions on which gap to fill.

"Anytime I see my defensive lineman might get out-gapped, it's my job to fix it," Campbell said. "That's the same for my safeties, if I'm out-gapped then the safeties got to fix it. It's just little things that we've just been focused on. If someone does get out-gapped, then I got to go fill that hole quick and get the double teams off my defensive linemen and help them out, it was more of those types of corrections. It's eye discipline and gap responsibility. The little things and it all comes down to communication and that's on me."

For the second straight week, Iowa's defense will face one of the top rushers in the nation. Illinois running back Chase Brown leads the country in rushing yards (733).

Big plays weren't a problem for Iowa last Saturday. The defense surrendered only two plays over 20 yards and one play over 25 yards, but failed to put Michigan in long down-and-distance situations. Michigan's success on early downs kept the Wolverines ahead of the chains throughout the afternoon. They averaged 6.2 yards per play on first down and 4.6 yards per rush on first down. In total, they had only one negative first-down play and Iowa's defense finished with just one sack and three tackles for loss.

Illinois ranks second in the Big Ten in time of possession (34:32); the offense has displayed the ability to control game tempo when in rhythm. The challenge for Iowa's front seven is to play stronger up front and prevent that much progress early. Not doing so would force defensive coordinator Phil Parker to play with an additional safety in the box. That takes the Hawkeyes out of their normal two-high safety look, which would make them more susceptible to big plays in the secondary.

"We were in the right place (against Michigan)," linebackers coach Seth Wallace said. "If you go back and look we were in the right place, we were just losing some ground, which was added to the five-, six-, seven-yard gains on first down. You don't want to be in second and four and threes, those are opportunistic downs for an offense. One of the key points this week with the linebackers is we have to win first down. We can't allow an offense to be on schedule when they get into second down."

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Wallace also noted that the challenge on defense is compounded by the fact that the struggles against Michigan are on film. In a "copycat" game, Wallace noted, opposing offenses will try to attack them in the same way, further emphasizing why correcting those mistakes are important. If the Hawkeye defense can do that (and potentially force turnovers), there's a good chance Iowa enters the bye week with a win and more optimism.

"We've got to do a real good job of making sure that the numbers (in the box) are right," Wallace said. "We've got to do a real good job of making sure that we make adjustments that are necessary based on what we haven't seen (yet) and certainly cover up what we have seen in the past."