Two weeks ago, Iowa’s football team was 0-2 with little prospect for improvement. The Hawkeye offense was as dysfunctional as ever and while the defense had performed well enough to keep Iowa in its first two games, the unit hardly seemed as dominant as Hawkeye fans have grown accustomed to in recent years. With Iowa’s hopes of having a strong, balanced offensive attack circling the drain, it was clear that the team needed its defense to be great, not good, for the Hawkeyes to turn their season around.
Iowa’s defense rose to the occasion over the past two games. The Hawkeye defense was absolutely superb in wins against Michigan State and Minnesota, holding the two teams to only 14 combined points while forcing five turnovers. Iowa now ranks eighth in the country in scoring defense with only 14.8 points surrendered per contest and 17th in the country in total defense with only 314.3 yards allowed per game, down only slightly from its 2019 season which saw the Hawkeyes hold opponents to 14 points and 308.2 yards per game. Iowa’s ability to maintain this high level of play is remarkable considering the Hawkeyes lost their four most productive defensive players from last season in A.J. Epenesa, Michael Ojemudia, Geno Stone, and Kristian Welch, in addition to being without a two-year starter at linebacker in Djimon Colbert who is sitting out this season due to coronavirus concerns.
Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker is a master of the “bend but don’t break defense,” and the 2020 Hawkeyes have embodied this principle to their core. As was the case in 2019, the Hawkeyes as a team aren’t doing a great job stopping the ball carrier behind the line but are proving exceptionally skilled at keeping the offense in front of them and avoiding big plays downfield. Among teams who have played four or more games, Iowa has allowed the fewest plays from scrimmage of twenty yards or more in addition to surrendering only three plays of 30+ yards on the season. Opponents hoping to score on Iowa must prove that they can sustain drives, often having to go the length of the field due to the exceptional field position granted to them by Tory Taylor’s precision punting. When Iowa’s offense has avoided putting its defense in a field position hole, the Hawkeyes have proven they can force the opposing offense off the field more times than not.
How have the Hawkeyes been able to overcome the odds and put together yet another fantastic defense in 2020? The answer starts up front where the Hawkeyes have found a difference maker in defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon, who leads the conference in both tackles for loss (seven) and yards lost on TFLs (37). Nixon has been a monster defending both the pass and running game, wracking up three sacks and more tackles than any other defensive lineman in the Big Ten through four games (23). Simply put, if Iowa was searching for a replacement for Epenesa’s havoc-wreaking ability along the defensive line, Nixon has certainly answered the call.
Nixon isn’t doing it alone, however, as his running mates along the defensive line have improved by leaps and bounds over the course of the season. Jack Heflin is emerging as the space-eating force the coaches hoped he would be when the defensive tackle transferred from Northern Illinois, and while his tackle numbers aren’t what some fans expected, his disruptive presence has freed up his teammates to make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. Chauncey Golston has done a phenomenal job setting the edge on running plays and has increasingly shown that he can contribute against both the run and pass. Meanwhile Zach VanValkenburg, quiet through the first three games, absolutely exploded against Minnesota, and his three sacks against the Gophers helped him assume the title of the conference’s current sack leader on the season. Iowa’s defensive line may see even further growth as the year progresses, as players like Joe Evans and Noah Shannon continue to grow in their roles as valuable rotational pieces while veteran players like Austin Schulte and Matt Lorbeck return to the field after being sidelined by injuries early in the season.
Iowa’s secondary has also stepped its game up considerably after struggling against Purdue’s talented wide receiving corps in the Hawkeyes’ opener. Iowa’s average of two interceptions per game is the second highest in all of college football, with much of the credit going to Big Ten interception leader Jack Koerner who would be on pace to break Iowa’s single-season interception record with nine picks over a regular twelve game season. Riley Moss, arguably the biggest source of concern among BHGP’s writers in our staff slack chat during the offseason, has far and away exceeded fan expectations so far this year and has developed into a much more consistent cornerback than he was as an underclassman. Meanwhile, Phil Parker’s decision to insert Kaevon Merriweather at strong safety and shift Dane Belton back to the Ca$h role has pay dividends for both players while helping to improve Iowa’s run defense without sacrificing the team speed necessary to successfully defend against more wide-open passing attacks.
Finally, the Hawkeyes have shown greater depth at linebacker than many fans anticipated coming in to the 2020 season. While Iowa may not have a singular star in this unit, Nick Niemann, Jack Campbell, Seth Benson, and Barrington Wade have all proven to be useful cogs in an effective run defense. While the Hawkeyes struggled to contain a middling Purdue running game and allowed Northwestern’s rushing attack to bring the Wildcats back into the game in Iowa’s second contest, the return of Seth Benson, Iowa’s leading tackler on a per-game basis in 2020, has helped strengthen Iowa’s ability to slow down the run. With sophomore Jack Campbell finally back after missing three games due to a mononucleosis diagnosis and talented freshman Jestin Jacobs growing more and more comfortable with the defense each week, Iowa’s linebacking corps could continue to seriously improve as the season progresses.
At the conclusion of last season, I wrote that Phil Parker’s work with the 2019 defense was his crowning achievement and a testament to his ability to transform a unit with only a handful of star players into one of the strongest defenses in both the nation and in program history. If Parker’s 2020 squad continues the improvement, they’ve shown over the first half of the season, Iowa’s venerated defensive coordinator may prove this projection wrong far earlier than expected. If the Hawkeyes hope to continue their turnaround, they will need to do so on the backs on a defense that is once again playing above and beyond preseason expectations.