Rick Brown: Iowa defense, not offense, is bigger concern

Rick Brown

IOWA CITY, Ia. – There was some handwringing about Iowa's short passing game last week.

Quarterback Jake Rudock completed 31-of-41 passes in the 31-23 victory against Northern Iowa. Only three of his passes traveled at least 15 yards in the air. Not exactly stretching the field.

"I think things will open up down the field as we move on," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said earlier this week.

Saturday would be a good time to start when Ball State comes to Kinnick Stadium. Let's see Rudock test his arm down the field. Let's see Tevaun Smith, Damond Powell and Derrick Willies put their playmaking potential on film for future defenses to worry about.

That will be one more sign that this offense has matured and is becoming much more potent than it was when offensive coordinator Greg Davis arrived in 2012.

But the real key to this game isn't Iowa's long-distance aerial game. It will be the ability of the defense to keep Ball State from eating up huge chunks of yardage.

Northern Iowa piled up 405 yards of total offense against the Hawkeyes. Not acceptable, Ferentz admitted. Even more concerning is the fact that 380 of those yards came through the air. The Panthers had eight plays of 20 yards or more. All of them were through the air.

To put that in context, I went back over the play-by-play of Iowa's final three games of the 2013 season – a 24-21 home victory over Michigan, a 38-17 victory at Nebraska and a 21-14 loss to Louisiana State in the Outback Bowl.

In those three games, Iowa's defense gave up a total of seven plays of 20 yards or more: none against Michigan, two (both passes) against Nebraska and five (four runs, one pass) against LSU. Three of those 20-plus runs came by Jeremy Hill on the Tigers' final scoring drive late in the game.

Northern Iowa did more damage than those three teams combined. That is an amazing and alarming fact.

"To be a good defensive team, we're going to have to eliminate that," Ferentz said.

I'll give the defense a "get out of jail card" this time. It was the first game with three new linebackers and two new secondary starters struggling to work together. Communication issues were the postgame buzz words.

But Iowa's back-end defenders need to talk things out and get on the same page, sooner than later, or this season won't be a book worth remembering.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.