Late in the 4th quarter of Iowa’s game against Minnesota, the Hawkeyes’ hopes for a Big Ten Championship berth appeared to be circling the drain. Iowa’s offense had fizzled out after a hot start thanks to an injury to star tight end Sam LaPorta, and the vaunted Hawkeye defense was being unexpectedly gouged on the ground, surrendering a shocking 312 rushing yards thanks to an otherworldly performance by Gopher running back Mohamed Ibrahim. With Minnesota in the redzone and the Hawkeye defense seemingly exhausted and on its heels, Iowa’s chances of escaping Minneapolis with a win seemed slim at best.
It was at this moment when defensive captain and consummate superstar Jack Campbell decided to take over the game. On a pivotal third down play, Campbell collided with Ibrahim in front of the first down marker, stopping the Gopher running back in his tracks and dislodging the football. Iowa defensive end Deontae Craig, an emerging star in his own right, pounced on the football, ending a nearly nine-minute drive and preventing Minnesota from taking the lead with only five minutes left in the game.
After yet another three and out by the Hawkeye offense, Minnesota once again seemed poised to take the lead. The Gophers were on the edge of field goal range when, on third and seven, Minnesota offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca pulled a Pete Carroll and decided to try his luck with the pass instead of continuing to feed Ibrahim on the ground. Quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis targeted a well-covered receiver, cornerback Riley Moss made an excellent play to force a deflection, and Jack Campbell snagged the ball out of the air. While Campbell was erroneously denied a touchdown thanks to a blown call by the officials, his second forced turnover of the 4th quarter gave the Hawkeye offense prime field position and led to the go-ahead scoring drive.
It was fitting that two of the most important plays made by Iowa’s defense were courtesy of Campbell, who has been Iowa’s most valuable player this season and seems destined to finish the year as an All-American. Campbell’s physicality has helped set the tone for the Hawkeye defense, and his stout play against both the run and the pass has elevated what might have been a good unit into an historically great one. Campbell is one of the surest tacklers in college football; his 110 tackles give him the second most among Power Five players after leading the country with a whopping 143 stops in 2021. He rarely finds himself out of position and is almost always capable of making a play when given the opportunity to do so. Campbell is surprisingly quick given his hulking 6-5, 246 lb. frame, and uses his excellent play recognition, rangy wingspan, and impressive physicality to impose his will on opposing offenses.
Iowa has had an embarrassment of riches at the middle linebacker position during the Kirk Ferentz era, with exceptional players like Josey Jewell, Pat Angerer, Abdul Hodge, and Fred Barr anchoring the Hawkeye defense. Campbell has proven to be just as effective as these other standouts, and one could certainly make that case that he is the most talented middle linebacker to wear the black and gold during the current coaching regime. Yet the strength of Campbell’s play is tied not just to his physical gifts, but also to the way he embodies the ethos of defensive coordinator Phil Parker and serves as an extension of the defensive guru on the field. After the Minnesota game, Campbell spoke to the defense’s ability to stay positive and fundamentally sound in the face of adversity, stating that “if you buy into just doing the little things consistently, it’s going to add up. You might not see it day one. You might not see it day 43. But you might see it on day 122. And that’s where I feel like this push-through has happened.” Parker deserves an immense amount of credit for assembling and training a defense capable of responding so decisively when its back was against the wall, but Campbell is due equal praise for translating his coach’s principles to the field of play and for making sure his teammates held to them as well. Fellow linebacker Seth Benson relayed the message of Campbell’s late-game speech to his teammates, which perfectly encapsulates the role the senior middle linebacker’s leadership has played in galvanizing the Hawkeye defense:
“You dream of these moments when you’re a kid…tie ballgame. Big Ten football in November and it’s us versus them. … Remember your roots. Remember your why. Why you go out there and do what we do and you remember all the times that you spend with your teammates. Remember why we’re here!”
Iowa is now on the precipice of second consecutive Big Ten West championship thanks to the outstanding play of its defense, and the unit, its coaches, and Campbell in particular will be deservedly showered in widespread acclaim and a wealth of post-season awards in the weeks that follow. Yet no trophies can capture the full extent of the impact Captain Jack has had on the defense and the team as a whole, an impact which is even greater than his impressive statistics can capture. Iowa appears destined to play more meaningful football games between now and the end of the season. No matter how big the stage gets or how big a hole the defense finds itself in, Iowa will always have a fighting chance as long as Jack Campbell is manning the middle of the defense.