Two of Iowa’s biggest defensive plays in team’s win over Illinois came courtesy of Dane Belton, the program’s third-year starter at the Ca$h position. The first, which came late in the second quarter when Illinois was attempting to drive downfield and score before halftime, helped preserve Iowa’s first half lead and set up the Hawkeye offense for a field goal attempt. The second came later in the game on a play in which Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters targeted a receiver downfield hoping to generate a big play. While it appeared for a moment that the Illini receiver had created enough separation from his defender for the pass to be completed, Belton showed excellent closing speed and made an athletic move to deflect the pass, one of two defended passes the junior from Florida was responsible for in this game.
Dane with his team-best fifth pick of the season @dbelton_ | #Hawkeyes pic.twitter.com/wr11HGWorq— Hawkeye Football (@HawkeyeFootball) November 21, 2021
Belton’s strong game against Illinois was just the latest in a long string of excellent performances from Iowa’s versatile defensive back. Belton leads the team in pass deflections with seven, and his five interceptions give him the most on both the Hawkeye roster and in the Big Ten conference. Belton was one of the clear defensive standouts in Iowa’s opener against Indiana, and his critical 4th quarter interception against Northwestern (his second pick of the day) helped seal the Hawkeyes’ road victory against the Wildcats.
That's INT no. ✌️ for @dbelton_ .@HawkeyeFootball pic.twitter.com/CDuF1YULb8— Iowa On BTN (@IowaOnBTN) November 7, 2021
However, Belton’s impact on Iowa’s defense goes far beyond his stats; the play of the junior safety/linebacker hybrid has dramatically increased the versatility of Iowa’s defense and has allowed the Hawkeyes to overcome critical injuries which might have undermined the team’s defensive performance. As Iowa’s starter at the Ca$h position, Belton has shown the ability to play multiple positions at an extremely high level. Belton regularly holds down the outside linebacker position but has also shown an ability to function as either a strong or free safety and to man-up against opposing wide receivers as a slot cornerback. This versatility has made Belton one of the team’s most indispensable defensive assets, which explains why his 740 defensive snaps trail only Jack Campbell for most on the team according to Pro Football Focus.
Belton’s ability to play multiple positions has allowed him to fill several important roles for the defense over the course of the season. With defensive backs Jack Koerner, Matt Hankins, and Terry Roberts all out against Illinois due to injuries, Belton oscillated between four positions over the course of the game which gave defensive coordinator Phil Parker increased flexibility to get creative with lineup combinations. While Iowa started the game with Belton at safety as part of Iowa’s 4-3 defense, the normally run-heavy Illini attack came out looking to spread out the Iowa defense and attack the depleted Hawkeye secondary through the air.
After Illinois’ first drive resulted in 6-7 passing for 68 yards and a touchdown, Iowa adjusted by playing Belton more at his normal Ca$h position which gave the Hawkeyes another defensive back capable of covering Illinois’ receivers downfield without sacrificing their ability to play stout defense against the run. This also allowed Iowa to rotate linebackers Seth Benson and Jestin Jacobs, helping to keep both players fresh and able to offer strong contributions in run support. The result? Iowa held Illinois to only 2.6 yards per carry while allowing Peters to complete only 44% of his passes on the day, a precipitous drop off from his hot start to the game. Belton’s versatility may not have been the sole factor behind the improvement of Iowa’s defense after the first Illini drive, but his ability to contribute at multiple levels of the defense play a major factor in allowing the Hawkeyes to increase their team speed without leaving themselves vulnerable to Illinois’ potent ground game.
Belton’s versatility is nothing new to Hawkeye fans, but his ability to create turnovers on defense has been a welcome development in 2021. Despite posting no interceptions during his first two years on campus, Belton has become one of the best ballhawks in the nation’s most prolific secondary, showing soft hands, great concentration, and excellent body control in making some impressive picks over the course of the season.
Belton could be a particularly important piece for Iowa’s defense in its upcoming game against Nebraska. While Koerner may be healthy enough to return to the lineup by Black Friday, Kirk Ferentz hedged a bit more regarding the health of Hankins and Roberts. Belton will likely be asked to play a key role once again in covering Nebraska’s receivers both one-on-one and in a supporting role as part of Iowa’s Cover 2 defense, while also helping to limit the opportunities for Cornhusker quarterback Adrian Martinez to attack the Iowa defense with his legs. Furthermore, should Iowa manage to sneak its way into the Big Ten Championship game, Belton would play a pivotal role in a hypothetical matchup against Ohio State, which would look to spread out and attack the Iowa defense downfield with big play receivers Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba while also probing the Hawkeye front seven with dyanamic freshman running back TrevYeon Henderson. Should this matchup come to pass, Belton’s ability to survive in pass coverage while also providing credible run support would be absolutely essential should Iowa hope to slow down a Buckeye offense that has been virtually unstoppable for most of the season.
While Dane Belton may not receive the press attention and accolades reserved for players like Jack Campbell, Riley Moss, and Matt Hankins, his elevated play and ever-expanding versatility has been one of the biggest drivers behind Iowa’s defensive success this season. If Belton can continue the growth he has shown over the course of the season, Iowa’s defense should be able to finish strong and keep the team’s hopes of winning a Big Ten Championship alive and well.