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Bullies of the Big Ten: Why the 2019 Iowa Defense Will Go Down as Phil Parker’s Masterpiece

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...at least until 2020 rolls around!

Middle Tennessee v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Iowa’s football program has become synonymous with dominant defenses during the Kirk Ferentz era. Not only has Iowa produced a number of defensive stars such as Bob Sanders, Chad Greenway, Adrian Clayborn, and Desmond King, but the Hawkeyes consistently field one of the top scoring defenses in the country, achieving a top 20 ranking in this category twelve times during Ferentz’s tenure as head coach. As much credit as Iowa deserves as a factory for producing quality NFL offensive linemen, defense has decidedly been the program’s calling card over the past 21 years.

Even by the absurdly high standard by which Iowa’s defenses are judged, the 2019 Hawkeye defense has been exemplary. As of this writing, Iowa has the 6th best scoring defense in college football and has allowed an average of only 14.0 points per game. With the exception of the 2008 defense, which was often considered to be the apex of former defensive coordinator Norm Parker’s tenure in Iowa City, no single defense during the Ferentz era has been so effective at keeping its opponents off the scoreboard. The Hawkeyes are also currently one of only five programs in the country to with a top 20-ranked pass and rush defense.

Hawkeye defensive coordinator Phil Parker has a reputation for being more aggressive and blitz-friendly than his predecessor Norm Parker, but his defense this year was truly the embodiment of Norm’s “bend but don’t break” philosophy. Iowa’s defense recorded only 67 tackles for loss on the season and averaged over three fewer TFLs per game than conference leader Ohio State. Despite this, Iowa’s defense surrendered only .3 points more than the Buckeyes did per game. Iowa’s knack for preventing explosive plays was a major contributor to this; the Hawkeyes allowed only 35 plays of 20 yards or more this season. Only two teams (Tennessee and Utah) were better at preventing explosive plays than the Hawkeyes in 2019. The Hawkeyes were also consistently able to keep opponents out of the redzone and force them to settle for field goals on the rare occasions in which they did manage to cross the 25 yard line, allowing touchdowns on only 44.83% of opponents’ trips to the red zone.

These statistics are particularly impressive considering that Iowa didn’t force turnovers at an abnormally high rate. The Hawkeyes recorded 21 turnovers this season, which is a solid number, but only ranks them 30th in the country in this category.

As impressive as Iowa’s defensive statistics have been this season, one needs to look at the context in which this defense played to truly understand how impressively Parker’s unit performed. Iowa’s offense struggled to put points on the board for most of the season and scored fewer than 25 points in seven of the Hawkeyes’ twelve games. Iowa’s inability to consistently move the ball frequently resulted in opposing offenses starting drives with excellent field position, placing substantial pressure on Iowa’s defense to get stops in less than ideal situations. Although Iowa lost to both Michigan and Penn State, the Hawkeye defense kept the team in the game and gave their offense a real opportunity to win.

The 2019 defense also deserves special consideration when comparing it to Hawkeye defenses from years past. The explosion of high-powered passing offenses in recent years has caused point totals to skyrocket throughout college football, and despite its longstanding reputation for offensive ineptitude, the Big Ten has not been immune to these changes. The 2008 Iowa defense may have held opponents to a lower point total than the 2019 unit did, but considering the offensive evolutions that have occurred in Big Ten over the past decade, the accomplishments of this season’s defense are arguably more impressive than those of the 2008 squad.

Phil Parker deserves an immense amount of credit for spearheading one of the stingiest defenses in program history. Unlike other Hawkeye defenses which were littered with All-Conference selections and All-American contenders, A.J. Epenesa is the only true star of this unit and the only player that has flashed the kind of talent and athleticism that warrants serious day one draft consideration by the NFL. Epenesa was the only Hawkeye defender to be named First Team All-Big Ten, and while Michael Ojemudia and Geno Stone were listed as 2nd/3rd team selections in various publications, neither came close to being consensus picks. Iowa’s defense thrived not because of the dominance of a few star players, though Epenesa certainly was dominant throughout the second half of the season. Instead, Parker’s unit truly operated as a team rather than a collection of individuals, which is why a future 1st round NFL draft pick was so often willing to sacrifice his stats by playing contain or sealing the edge on run plays if doing so would increase the team’s chances of succeeding.

Parker also deftly helped the Hawkeyes navigate through several potential injury landmines. Iowa’s best linebacker and leading tackler Kristian Welch missed 3 ½ games after suffering an upper-body stinger against Penn State, and Iowa played defensive back roulette for much of the early season due to injuries in the secondary. Even after the secondary rotation was solidified, the Hawkeyes continued to start unheralded walk-on Jack Koerner at free safety, only for Koerner to develop into a real contributor at that position. Although the Hawkeyes were forced to adopt a “next man in” mentality, the defense continued to perform at a high level throughout the year.

The worst performance by Parker’s 2019 defense came during the Holiday Bowl, but even that game can be looked at as a testament to Parker’s ability to get results under difficult circumstances. While USC’s dynamic passing offense dominated much of the first half, Iowa’s defensive line was able to turn up the pressure in the second half, ultimately resulting in Epenesa’s strip-sack which knocked Trojan QB Kedon Slovis out of the game. Iowa then proceeded to shut down Slovis’ replacement Matt Fink who, despite being a backup, actually led USC to its biggest win of the season against Utah.

Furthermore Parker’s decision to insert Nick Niemann for Djimon Colbert was lost in the shuffle, but changed the entire character of the defense during the second half and helped shore up the Hawkeyes in pass coverage and even resulted in a pick-six near the end of the game. This was one of many times this season in which Parker benched an established starter in favor of another player who he felt could provide something his teammate could not in a specific situation, decisions which often led to big plays coming from unexpected sources (Riley Moss’ performance against Purdue particularly comes to mind).

The best coordinators in football are those who are not only able to successfully establish effective schemes but can also be flexible enough to adapt those schemes to make the most of the players they have at their disposal in any given year. Based on both of those criteria, Phil Parker’s performance as Iowa’s defensive coordinator in 2019 was a resounding success. The Hawkeyes have now finished with a top 20 scoring defense for the fifth year in a row, a feat which they have accomplished during six of the eight seasons Parker has captained this defense. Whether the Hawkeyes are built around forcing turnovers with their elite defensive backs or using a defensive line full of NFL talent to generate a dominant pass rush, Parker has consistently shown that he can coach a defense capable of competing at the highest levels of college football.

Iowa’s 2019 defense was Phil Parker’s masterpiece and solidified his status as one of the best defensive coordinators in college football. With the Hawkeyes set to bring back important defensive contributors next year in addition to an influx of tantalizing young talent, Iowa fans should be waiting on pins and needles to see what Parker and this defense are capable of doing in 2020.