Howe: Mission Accomplished for Hawkeye Defense

September 7, 2019

Written by Rob Howe

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa’s defensive goal Saturday was shutting down the run. For good measure, it decided to take away the pass as well.

The Hawkeyes authored a dominating performance in shutting out Rutgers, 30-0. The visitors from New Jersey must have felt they they were stuck in unrelenting traffic on the Garden State Parkway.

The Scarlet Knights managed just 125 yards after putting up 554 yards in blowing out UMass a week ago. They were held to five first downs and 2.6 yards per play.

The situation would have been uglier had Rutgers punter Adam Korsak not performed out of his mind, averaging 47.6 yards on 10 attempts. If it tells you anything, the junior from Australia clearly claimed his team’s MVP.

Iowa showed some cracks in its secondary last week despite topping Miami 38-14. The defensive backs attributed breakdowns to poor communication. They cleared that up Saturday, allowing only 9 of 26 passes to be completed for 41 yards with two interceptions.

While level of competition factors into this equation, the Hawkeyes look like they have a championship defense. That’s a good sign heading into next Saturday’s showdown at Iowa State. The Cyclones will provide the toughest challenge to date, by far.

Iowa plans on following the same blueprint that led to its latest whitewash.

“It came down to our preparation during the week,” said middle linebacker Kristian Welch, who paced the Hawkeyes with eight tackles. “The D-Line did a great job getting the checks from us linebackers and the safeties did a good job getting us into the proper coverages. We were really on the same page on almost every play.”

That’s saying something when you consider sophomore Jack Koerner was making his first start at free safety. He replaced the injured Kaevon Merriweather, who started his first game last week.

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It’s a position responsible for tying the three levels of the defense together. Koerner credits the veterans on defense in helping him foster continuity.

Iowa remained basic. It didn’t blitz much. Outside of occasional stunting, the scheme wasn’t altered to free all-world defensive end A.J. Epenesa from double teams. It just took everything away from Rutgers with fundamentally sound defense.

Epenesa learned from the attention paid to him by Miami and wreaked more havoc Saturday. He delivered his first sack of the season and was credited with four quarterback hurries.

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The foundation of this defense is built on stopping the run. Through two games, it’s yielding just 3.0 yards per carry.

“Give credit to Iowa, they played a really good football game; played well up front on both sides of the ball, controlled the line of scrimmage today,” Rutgers coach Chris Ash said. “Winning in this league is hard. It’s difficult. You have to be able to run the ball and stop the run to win.”

The Hawkeye defense complements the offense well. Iowa is averaging 5.1 yards per ground attempt, which is opening up the pass. It’s early, but this team boasts multiple playmakers on both sides of the ball, making keying on one or two guys difficult.

As much off-season talk focused on Iowa’s new 4-2-5 alignment that produced last year, it’s been the base 4-3 with a few sub-packages getting the job done. LEO linebacker Nick Niemann has shown he belongs on the field more often than not.

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So far, the Hawkeyes have made up for the loss of all-Big Ten defenders Amani Hooker and Anthony Nelson to the NFL after last season. They replaced four starting defensive linemen without missing a beat.

However, the most important aspect of Saturday’s performance was that it represented progress from Game 1.

“We played as a team today,” cornerback Michael Ojemudia said.

Feeding off each other, that’s when Iowa plays its best. It suffocates its opponent.

Rutgers didn’t know what hit it. It couldn’t breathe. It couldn’t find the exit.

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