Three Kings. You can't talk about Iowa's nascent resurgence this season without mentioning the defense, and you can't mention the defense without talking about the linebackers first. We knew the linebacking corps would be the strength of the defense coming into the season; we're talking about three seniors with a combined six years of starting experience and 662 career tackles even before the 2013 season kicked off, after all.
What we didn't know is how much improved these three would be over last season. Anthony Hitchens has become a terror, leading the team with 47 tackles, good for 14.2% of the team's total tackles, which is really good. He also leads the team with 4.5 TFLs after five games. Christian Kirksey is second in tackles and all of a sudden the most disruptive pass rusher on the team; he leads the team in QB hurries with 4 (the entire team only has 14). James Morris is "only" third in tackles with 31, but after a 2012 season where he was routinely targeted on inside routes, he already has two picks, including the sealer against Minnesota on Saturday. He is the complete linebacker we had waited three years for him to become.
And oh man, their performance against Minnesota. Philip Nelson and the Gopher offense had no answer for the Iowa D, and those three in particular. The Gophers averaged 282 yards rushing a game coming into the game; Iowa held them to 30 on 27 rushes. All told, Minnesota gained 165 yards of total offense: 80 in the first half, 85 in the second.
Minnesota ran 51 plays. Only 13 of those came in Iowa territory, and of those three came inside Iowa's 30. Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens combined for 23 tackles and both of Iowa's picks.
More than that, they didn't blow assignments; they blew plays up. They didn't get trucked; they did the trucking. They took Minnesota's strength—the run game—and made it an unquestionable weakness. They played awesome.
Seriously, if you recorded the game, watch it again, and just watch the linebackers. That was a dominant performance.
Vintage Iowa! I'm not done talking about the defense. After Saturday's performance, the Hawkeyes are in some pretty lofty company nationally. Here are some very enjoyable stats:
- 7th in yards allowed per game (265.6 ypg)
- 7th in rushing yards allowed per game (79.2 ypg)
- 8th in 3rd down conversion defense (25.4%)
- 12th in defensive red zone conversion (66%)
- 17th in points allowed per game (15.0)
- 29th in passing yards allowed per game (186.4)
- 2.66 points allowed per red zone trip (3 FGs, 1 TD in six trips)
- Fewest red zone TDs allowed (1 total)
These are Norm Parker era numbers. We're not saying the defense is full of NFL talent or has no holes or anything like that, but in terms of execution and cohesion, it's light years ahead of last year and doing exactly what it needs to do.
Now yes, Iowa has faced a pretty light schedule. You know who else has faced a light schedule? Everyone else in the Big Ten (except for horrible, horrible Purdue) and pretty much everyone in BCS conferences.
So yeah, these numbers probably won't hold up when the likes of Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and friends come through. That's all right. Other teams' numbers won't hold up when they don't get to play Sun Belt and FCS schools anymore either. So don't expect Iowa to tumble that far in the rankings, even if the raw numbers behind them rise.
I'm not saying Iowa's for real, but... There's still a long way to go and this was the easy part of the schedule. The only semi-gimme left is horrible, horrible Purdue. Last season, Iowa was 4-2 (2-0) after the Michigan State game and nobody expected 4-8 to happen. Caution to be taken, yes, yes.
It's just that Iowa looked kinda crappy last year even at 4-2, and this season's team scarcely resembles last year's version. Even with that late collapse to NIU and the unnecessary tightening against ISU, this team looks significantly sharper and more physical on both sides of the ball.
Wisconsin is going to be a beast of an opponent, even at Kinnick, but look what Iowa just did to Minnesota's rushing attack. The rest of the home opponents look vulnerable...ish as well. Michigan State is still a 1.5-point dog for this week's game, Northwestern looks pretty average even at No. 17 and 4-0, and Michigan has played down to its competition in rather horrifying fashion. We're not predicting Iowa will beat all four of these teams (or even three, or hell even two of them), but we're keeping our options open until after this week's games, y'know?
What did y'all take away from the game? Other than the goalposts, which, COME ON. THEY WERE RIGHT THERE!