Iowa football defensive coordinator Phil Parker previews Ohio State matchup

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker did an extensive self-scout during the Hawkeyes' bye last week. The Iowa defense ranks third nationally in scoring defense (9.83 points per game) and seventh nationally in total defense (265 yards per game), but admitted that they haven't exactly hit their expected marks in back-to-back losses to Michigan and Illinois.

"I think we can do better a little bit (in red zone defense)," Parker said during last week's coordinator availability. "One other thing is I look at is third downs ... then if you add the fourth downs into it, we gave up too many fourth downs. Just an opportunity to get off the field, and we didn't do it. Takeaways are down compared to what we're used to. We had some opportunities, but we didn't take care of those things."

Overall Parker is pleased with how the defense has performed through six games. As the Hawkeye defense exits the bye week, the biggest challenge is ahead this Saturday: a road trip to No. 2 Ohio State and perhaps the best offense in the country. Parker, an Ohio native, said this year's Buckeye team is no different than teams of years past.

"I think Ohio State has had great players since I was a little kid," Parker said. "They have athletes that they can get the ball to, a dynamic quarterback that can get the ball to them. They have good running backs. They have a good offensive line.  I don't know what they're averaging, something maybe around 50 points a game. ... I think they're a really good football team. It's what we've seen on the film."

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Ohio State's offense is near the top of the nation in almost every statistical measure. They lead the country in scoring offense (48.8 points per game), yards per play (8.07) and are second in total offense (543.7 yards per game). More impressively, they've reached these marks largely without wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, a projected top five pick in next year's NFL Draft who has been sidelined to injury since week 1. But the Buckeyes do have quarterback CJ Stroud, a front runner for this year's Heisman trophy.

The Buckeyes' big-play offense versus Iowa's stingy defense is the matchup to watch on Saturday. Parker outlined a few early keys to victory.

"You've got to practice well, play well and be in the right spots," Parker said. "You have to have eye discipline just like any other game. You have to play with great leverage. You have to separate and get off blocks. You can't make the tackle if you are tied up with somebody that's blocking you. You have to be around the ball to intercept the ball, to recover a fumble."

The Iowa defense ranks third nationally in scoring defense (9.83 points per game) and seventh nationally in total defense (265 yards per game) this season.

The opening drive will be critical to Iowa's success on Saturday. The Hawkeyes have surrendered points on the opening drive in all three of their Big Ten games: a 12-play, 66-yard field goal drive against Rutgers, an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to Michigan and a 17-play, 66-yard field goal drive against Illinois. Conversely, Ohio State's starting offense has scored 30 touchdowns in its last 38 possessions. Parker referenced a previous point in stopping early points, getting off the field on third downs.

"I think we have to really to go back and look and evaluate when you could have got off the field on third down," Parker said. "We could have got off in the Illinois game on third down, and we were going to get off the field and we got a penalty. I always think it's important to stop the first third down. There's no question about that. That's how you see the game going.

"I think that's an issue. If you don't stop the third down I think sometimes kids say, 'Oh, God, no, here we go again.' I have to do a better job of getting them in the right positions to make those plays and to help those guys out."

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In addition to Parker, Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and special teams coordinator Levar Woods were available during last week's bye. Here are a few takeaways:

Wide receiver Diante Vines likely to return, other WR injury notes

Iowa wide receiver Diante Vines (0) has missed every game this season with a wrist injury but could return on Saturday at Ohio State.

Injuries at wide receiver are among the main reasons why Iowa's offense has struggled through six games. But it appears that more help is on the way in the form of sophomore Diante Vines. He was turning heads early in fall camp but a wrist injury has sidelined him for nearly two months. He traveled and dressed against Illinois but did not play, but a return at Ohio State is very possible.

Because it wasn't a lower body injury, Vines has been able to stay in good shape by running and conditioning.

"He is a guy that before the injury, had done some nice things in the red zone," offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said. "He has some speed that is impressive on the outside for a bigger guy. He is not real lengthy, but he has some size to him. He can run and use his body. His ball skills have impressed us since he has been here but unfortunately he has battled a lot of injuries. Fall camp was really the first time that he was able to kind of push it forward and get going. Really excited about that."

Elsewhere at receiver, true freshman Jacob Bostick and sophomore Keagan Johnson are still works in progress.

"(Bostick) has had to battle some injuries here," Ferentz said. "I'm not confident that he will play against Ohio State, so I don't want to get anybody excited about that prematurely; still battling through some of those things. Then with Keagan still continuing to battle some of the injuries, some of the soft tissue stuff, I would defer to the head coach just about his availability."

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LeVar Woods names a few special teams stock risers

Iowa freshman defensive back Xavier Nwankpa has impressed several coaches through six weeks.

Iowa's special teams unit is the foundation for many players to find playing time at their natural positions. Terry Roberts and Cooper DeJean are a pair of special teams aces who are defensive starters now and Kyler Fisher and Jay Higgins have grown into rotational players at linebacker.

Those players and several other stars such as linebacker Jack Campbell highlight the special teams group, but special teams coordinator LeVar Woods mentioned a few young players who are standing out and might get an opportunity in the second half of the season.

On defense, Woods mentioned true freshman safety Xavier Nwankpa. The five-star recruit has garnered praise from Parker and linebackers coach Seth Wallace in recent weeks and is continuing to improve. The Hawkeyes have gotten great safety play this season but Nwankpa is continuing to push.

"Xavier is a freshman that happened to join the (kickoff and punt coverage) unit," Woods said. "That is hard to do as a true freshman, to play here on our punt unit. But he is doing it and doing it well."

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And offensively, Woods said to keep an eye on redshirt freshman Deavin Hilson.

"Deavin Hilson has done a really good job on the (special teams) scout team," Woods said. "We've transitioned him to (starting special teams unit). He played us one snap in punt coverage (at Illinois). That's a guy I could see transitioning his role to becoming a little bit bigger, not only on special teams but on offense as well. I don't want to speak for (running backs coach Ladell Betts) or anyone on offense, but I could see that."