Howe: Hawkeye Defensive Line Leads the Way in Cy-Hawk Victory

September 8, 2018

Written by Rob Howe

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Parker Hesse stood outside the Iowa locker room reflecting on Saturday’s 13-3 victory against rival Iowa State here at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes’ fourth straight win in this series was their first since Kirk Ferentz became head coach in 1999.

He became emotional thinking about his senior class pulling off the feat. There hasn’t been a player more invested in this program during Ferentz’s run.

It’s appropriate that the Waukon (IA) High graduate is leading a defensive line dominating during a 2-0 start to the season. Cyclone coach Matt Campbell credited that position group with being the difference in Saturday’s game.

The front four racked up four sacks against Iowa State after dropping Northern Illinois quarterback Marcus Childers five times in Week 1. The nine sacks ranked it second nationally after two weeks. The heat in the pocket has been consistent.

Much of the pregame talk this week focused on how the Hawkeyes would stop dynamic running back David Montgomery, who rushed for 112 yards (5.6 per carry) and added five receptions for 53 yards against them a year ago. They held him to 44 yards on 17 carries Saturday. The visitors managed just 188 total yards.

Iowa has answered preseason concerns about how the defense would respond to losing three starting linebackers and all-American cornerback Josh Jackson off of last year’s team. The replacements have performed well. The line has paved the way.

“They make it easy for the linebackers and the rest of us,” safety Amani Hooker said. “When they’re applying pressure to the quarterback, it makes the quarterback think quick, make faster decisions and it also helps in the run game with guys filling gaps and making tackles.”

Much of the credit goes to position coach Reese Morgan, who took over a unit in shambles in 2012. He slowly built in back up, in large part by developing under-recruited, home-grown talent like Hesse, Sam Brincks and Anthony Nelson into disruptive college players. He’s teamed them up with more highly regarded prospects like Matt Nelson, A.J. Epenesa and Cedrick Lattimore.

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“A lot of us are Iowa guys and we take pride in what we do every day,” said Brincks, who hails from Carroll.

It’s a selfless group that that reflects the culture the Iowa coaching staff seeks. Epenesa, who could have gone to any school in the country, accepts being a role player, one that consistently harasses the quarterback when he receives reps. Matt Nelson is at Iowa instead of Notre Dame or Stanford and moved from end to tackle last year for the betterment of the team.

The significance of Iowa’s strong defensive line play this season cannot be overstated. As Ferentz mentioned during his postgame press conference Saturday, it’s allowing an inconsistent offense time to find its footing.

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The Hawkeyes have scored three points during the first halves of the first two games and not trailed in either one. Think about that.

Last year, Iowa’s defense was led by three senior linebackers, a group that included all-American Josey Jewell. That leadership responsibility has shifted to the front, where Hesse, Brincks and Matt Nelson are seniors, and Anthony Nelson and Lattimore are juniors.

The Hawkeyes have started five different guys at linebacker already this season and not missed a beat thanks to the defensive line. Redshirt freshman Djimon Colbert opened his first college contest ever Saturday and held up well.

Colbert found out early in the week that he would be starting because Kristian Welch was hurt. One of the first people to approach him and help was Hesse. The other defensive linemen followed.

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“They were just telling me to stay calm and focus on my reads and everything was going to be OK. They were just keeping my mind on the right path. It was all pretty important,” Colbert said.

Ferentz mentioned after the game that he felt Iowa could have a pretty good football team if its more inexperienced offensive line could get into a similar groove as the defensive line. Center Keegan Render said he has seen the development coming courtesy of practice reps against the Hawkeye defensive front.

“We go against our defense every week. We know our guys are really good, especially the defensive line. It just instills confidence every time we can move the ball against our defensive line because we know we can drive the ball against anybody,” he said.

Iowa will need more out of its offense. That could come next week against Northern Iowa. It’s even more likely the following Saturday when Big Ten West favorite Wisconsin comes to town.

The defensive line is holding up its part of the bargain and allowing it time. If the offense can catch up soon, this could be a special season. It’s already one for the front four.

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