Leistikow: Phil Parker's best defense gives Iowa football a chance for more trophies

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY − When Leshon Williams’ 4-yard run took the fourth-quarter clock under 40 seconds and with Wisconsin out of timeouts, the outcome was settled. Iowa would not need to run another play to secure a 24-10 win against a border-rival foe it has had so much trouble defeating since 2010. But a host of Hawkeye football players already had one more running play in mind – a sprint to the north end zone, a Kinnick Stadium version of “Running of the Bull.”

Even though safety Kaevon Merriweather had already run onto the field with about 30 seconds left, he was a step behind fellow fifth-year senior defenders Riley Moss and Seth Benson. They were the first to reach the Heartland Trophy, who former Hawkeye Drew Ott dubbed “Albert the Bull” back in 2015. It was fitting that Iowa's defensive players were a step ahead of everyone else yet again on this night.

“They beat us down there first,” Iowa senior tight end Sam LaPorta said. “They deserved it today. They played their butts off.”

More:Leistikow's 5 thoughts from Iowa's 24-10 win against Wisconsin: Cooper DeJean dazzles again

Riley Moss and Kaevon Merriweather, two fifth-year seniors in Iowa's secondary, rejoice with the Heartland Trophy after a 24-10 win against Wisconsin.

Hawkeye players all swatted in the air to bat Albert the Bull on the side, on the head, wherever they could. Everyone got a chance to celebrate. And there was much to celebrate on this Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium.

Namely, another sterling defensive performance that suddenly has Iowa (6-4 overall, 4-3 in the Big Ten Conference) as maybe the most likely team to win the West Division title.

The Hawkeyes forced three turnovers, blocked a punt and shut down Wisconsin’s running game, never an easy task. The Badgers netted 51 yards on 31 carries. Even more telling, Wisconsin gained just seven yards on 15 first-down carries. And now in back-to-back-to-back wins, the Iowa defense has held Northwestern to 177 total yards, high-powered Purdue to 255 and Wisconsin to 227. The latter two teams, Iowa’s two biggest foils over the previous five years, scored one touchdown and two field goals in eight quarters.

More:Iowa vs. Wisconsin report card: Cooper DeJean, Deontae Craig shine in third straight win

“It’s the will versus the want, so if you’re willing to go out there and stop the run, then good things can happen,” said senior linebacker Jack Campbell, a hulking and physical centerpiece in the middle of Iowa’s defense.

And maybe great things.

Through 10 games, Iowa is allowing an average of 260.7 yards per game, and that includes having already faced Michigan and Ohio State. That puts this defense on pace to be the best at Iowa since Hayden Fry’s 1981 team that limited opponents to 253.6 yards per game on the path to the Rose Bowl. (That year’s Iowa offense was challenged, too.)

In the Kirk Ferentz era, Norm Parker’s 2009 defense is the standard-bearer at 276.5 yards per game. That team started 9-0 and won an Orange Bowl.

Since Phil Parker took over officially in 2012, he’s had some great defenses. This looks like his best yet.

And it’s not done yet, seemingly looking more dominant as the weeks progress. Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz was constantly under pressure and misfiring Saturday.

“As the season has worn on, we’ve gotten a lot better. We’re just playing more confident,” Merriweather said. “That’s continued to show week in and week out, just how good this defense is. Even with how good we’re playing, we have so much room for improvement.”

What makes this defense so fascinating is that it lost three defensive backs off last year’s 10-win team; a projected top-100 NFL Draft pick in linebacker Jestin Jacobs played just two quarters before a season-ending torn biceps; and veteran cornerback Terry Roberts has been healthy enough to play just one Big Ten game.

Yet guys everywhere have risen to the occasion. Campbell is a beast, and so is Benson. Lukas Van Ness has become a pass-rushing star, as he notched another sack Saturday. Deontae Craig seems to make a big play every week, and he blocked a second-quarter punt Saturday. Cash defender Sebastian Castro and free safety Quinn Schulte were bench players for three years but now are as solid as they come on the field. Merriweather and Moss are playing their best football, and so are defensive tackles Logan Lee and Noah Shannon. The list goes on and on and on, but maybe at the top of the heap is sophomore defensive back Cooper DeJean – who was the best player in a Hawkeye uniform on Saturday, with game-changing plays on defense (32-yard pick-six) and special teams (four punt returns for 82 yards and a downed punt at the Wisconsin 1 that directly led to seven Iowa points).

Ferentz, in his 24th season as head coach, goes all the way back to 2004 to remember a time when he threw his defense on the field week after week and expected dominance like this. That year’s offense struggled mightily in the run game but was opportunistic in scoring points.

“I don't mind telling you that was prominent in my thoughts today,” Ferentz said, “certainly about how we approached the second half. Same way the last three weeks, actually. You want to be smart in that second half and not put those guys in a really bad position.”

As much frustration as there might be with the Iowa offense, the Hawkeyes aren’t trying to do much on offense a lot of the time … because of this defense. Once Iowa gets a lead, Ferentz is more than happy to lean on his defense.

From here on out, this Iowa team is playing trophy games. Minnesota next week for Floyd of Rosedale (3 p.m., Fox); then Nebraska for the Heroes Trophy (3 p.m. Nov. 25, BTN). If Iowa wins both games and Illinois loses once (at Michigan next week, at Northwestern to finish), then the Hawkeyes are playing for a Big Ten championship trophy.

With a defense playing like this, Iowa is going to give itself a chance against anybody it faces.

"We stress that we play at a championship level and give championship-level effort every time we are on the field, whether that's practice or games," DeJean said. "When it comes down to Saturday, we always strive to be perfect."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.