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Can Iowa’s Defense Win the West All By Itself?

The only offense worse than Iowa’s is the offense of whichever team has to play the Hawkeye defense.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

2022 has produced one of the strangest and weakest Big Ten West fields in recent memory, so it is only fitting that one of the sport’s most bizarre and imperfect teams may have an opportunity to win it. If Iowa wins its next two games and Illinois loses to either Michigan or Northwestern, the Hawkeyes will win the division for the second consecutive season. As bizarre as that sentence is to type, it would have seemed even more ridiculous just three weeks ago with Iowa sitting at 3-4 on the season and reeling from a 54-10 beatdown at the hands of Ohio State.

Iowa’s three-game winning streak was aided by respectable offensive performances against Northwestern and Purdue, but the team’s most recent game dispelled any illusions that the offense had truly turned a corner. The Hawkeyes gained a pitiful 146 yards of total offense, required a whopping 45 carries to gain a mere 52 rushing yards, and surrendered 12 tackles for loss, including six sacks. Iowa’s offense looked as inept against the Badgers as it has for most of the 2022 campaign, and there is little evidence to suggest the Hawkeyes can put together even a competent offensive performance against a good defense.

If Iowa manages to win the West, the Hawkeyes may go down as the single worst offense of any FBS to ever play for a conference championship. Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, the only offense worse than Iowa’s is the offense of whichever team has to play the Hawkeye defense.

Iowa’s Offense vs. Opposing Offenses

Offense Yards Per Play Points Per Game Touchdowns
Offense Yards Per Play Points Per Game Touchdowns
Iowa 4.19 17.9 15
Iowa's Opponents 3.81 13.9 14

Phil Parker has assembled possibly the greatest defense in program history, and the Hawkeyes have ridden this unit to the precipice of a divisional championship. Iowa has the 5th best scoring defense in the country despite the Hawkeye offense frequently giving its opponents prime field position and is allowing the fewest yards per play (3.81) and third-fewest yards per game (260.7) in the sport. The last defense to allow fewer yards per play than this year’s Iowa squad was the 2011 Alabama team that won the national championship and has been cited by several analysts as college football’s all-time greatest defense. The Hawkeyes rank in the top ten nationally in both rushing and passing defense, have scored four defensive touchdowns and two safeties (which accounts for nearly 1/6 of Iowa’s total scoring output this season), and blocked three punts thanks to phenomenal individual effort plays from their defensive linemen. Meanwhile, Iowa’s defensive backs have repeatedly helped pin opposing offenses deep in their own territory thanks to their tremendous contributions in punt coverage.

Iowa’s defense has been absolutely stellar at every level. The Hawkeye defensive line boasts one of its deepest rotations in recent memory, subbing in wave after wave of players who can penetrate the opposing line, contain the edge, and harass the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage. The Hawkeye linebacking corps, led by presumptive All-American Jack Campbell, has shined against both the run and the pass, fulfilling the unit’s sky-high potential despite the early-season loss of a burgeoning star in Jestin Jacobs. Iowa’s secondary features one of its best cornerback tandems ever, a pair of safeties who have played virtually mistake-free football all season long, and a versatile utility man in Sebastian Castro who has emerged as one of the hardest hitters in college football. The defense has played at a high level despite losing key contributors like Jacobs and cornerbacks Terry Roberts and Jermari Harris to injury while coaxing big contributions out of career backups like linebacker Jay Higgins and underclassmen like Aaron Graves.

Most impressively, the Hawkeye defense has withstood the immense pressure of carrying an anemic offense on a weekly basis. When Iowa’s offense fails to put together scoring drives, the defense gives them short fields or scores points for them outright. When the offense turns the ball over in opposing territory, the defense battens down the hatch and keeps the other team out of the end zone, knowing that the offense cannot score enough points to keep pace if they do not. When the defensive players and coaches are confronted with a veritable media circus surrounding the incompetence and underperformance of their offensive colleagues, they ignore the noise and turn out one outstanding game after another.

Can Iowa’s championship-caliber defense propel the team to another Big Ten Championship game? Meanwhile, Illinois still holds the tie-breaker over Iowa thanks to their 9-6 victory earlier this season, but the Illini will be heavy underdogs on the road against Michigan having been upset in their past two games, and a win over the Wolverines looks like a tall order for a team that is regressing fast. If Michigan takes care of business against Illinois, Iowa may enter this week’s game in control of its own destiny. The Hawkeyes will face a motivated and capable opponent on Saturday in Minnesota, a squad whose Big Ten title aspirations have similarly been buoyed by Illinois’ recent decline and who could dramatically improve their championship prospects by beating Iowa for the first time since 2014. Nebraska looks like a pushover on paper thanks to their porous defense and mistake-prone offense, but the Huskers have played Iowa close in four straight games despite being the less talented team and having nothing at stake other than the prospect of spoiling their rival’s season. It is easy to see the Huskers making the game competitive only to have Hawkeye defense rip their heart out in the closing minutes in classic Nebraska fashion.

Yet Iowa’s defensive prowess may still not be enough to win the West if the team cannot coax more consistent production from its offense. Nebraska’s defense may be the worst Iowa has faced this season, but Minnesota is extremely stout against both the run and pass and has managed to prevent three opponents from reaching the endzone this season. Even if Iowa’s defense plays its best game of the season against the run, it may not be enough to completely shut down star tailback Mohamad Ibrahim, and the offense might need to score a few times to keep pace. It would be heartbreaking for Iowa’s defense to play another phenomenal game only to be denied a trip to the conference championship game thanks to an abysmal offensive performance. Unfortunately, it also seems completely plausible given the unit’s performance this season. If Iowa’s offense can perform at the level it showed against Purdue over the next two weeks, the Hawkeye defense will have plenty to be thankful for come Black Friday. If not, Iowa may end up wasting one of the best defenses in program history.