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The Casual Brilliance of Iowa’s Defense

Iowa may not be forcing as many turnovers as in recent years, but that hasn’t made its defense any less productive.

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

The Iowa Hawkeyes are truly a one-of-one in modern college football. Despite averaging fewer yards per game than any team in the FBS, Iowa is 7-2 (and would have been 8-1 if not for an extremely controversial call that cost the Hawkeyes the game against Minnesota) and sitting alone atop the Big Ten West. While the offensive renaissance promised by Iowa amid a slew of high-profile transfers failed to yield fruit or save Brian Ferentz’s job, the Hawkeyes have once again ridden an elite defense to what has the makings of a successful yet unconventional season.

Over the past few years, Iowa’s defensive prowess has been built at least in part on the team’s ability to create takeaways. Iowa ranked in the top 25 teams nationally in total takeaways every year from 2020-22, and the 2021 Hawkeye squad forced the third most turnovers in the nation and led college football in interceptions with 25. Yet this year’s Hawkeye defense has bucked this trend; the 2023 team has forced only 11 turnovers through nine games, ranking 89th in the country. However, despite Iowa’s inability to create takeaways at the rate they have in recent years, the Hawkeyes have been as dominant on defense as nearly any team in the Kirk Ferentz era. Iowa is allowing fewer yards per play this year than all but one team in the FBS (4.05) and are allowing opponents to score fewer points per game than all but four (13.7). No team in college football has allowed fewer rushing touchdowns than the Hawkeyes this season (one), and the Hawkeyes lead the nation in the fewest yards allowed per passing attempt (4.8). One need look no further than the Hawkeyes’ goal line stand against Northwestern last week to see how exceptionally difficult it is to score on this team, even when the Iowa offense regularly puts the defense in difficult positions. Iowa’s defense may not be generating the flashy highlights that it has over the past few seasons, but that hasn’t made the unit any less elite.

Iowa’s coaching staff deserves an immense amount of credit for building a defense that is as well-coached and technically sound as any college football has seen in several years. Kirk Ferentz has always prioritized the development and protection of Iowa’s defense and has assembled an elite staff on that side of the ball capable of identifying and developing talent in addition to preparing them for every game. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker is worthy of every accolade he has received throughout his illustrious career and has coached an exceptionally disciplined squad that avoids mistakes, takes excellent pursuit angles, and excels at swarming to the ball carrier. Position coaches Kelvin Bell and Seth Wallace are similarly deserving of praise for coaching deep, talented units that have thrived despite the loss of first round NFL draft picks in Lukas Van Ness and Jack Campbell. A recent breakdown by Urban Meyer for the Big Ten Network did an excellent job detailing the ways the Iowa defense is coached to do the little things that make this group so elite.

While there are no real weaknesses to the Iowa defense, the Hawkeye secondary has arguably been the engine that has propelled them to success. Cooper DeJean is one of the best cornerbacks in the country, a lockdown cover man who doubles as one of Iowa’s best scoring weapons with his ability to create pick-sixes and flip the field in the return game. Sebastian Castro may be the most improved player on the Iowa defense and can also make a case for being its most valuable player. An elite tackler who has improved his cover skills this season, Castro can defend the run like a linebacker and cover like a nickelback, all while setting the tone for the defense with his aggressive yet controlled style of play. Safeties Xavier Nwankpa and Quinn Schulte are excellent regardless of whether they are playing in the box or playing centerfield on passing downs, while Jermari Harris provides a physical presence at cornerback that serves as an excellent complement to DeJean’s athleticism. Add in a slew of promising young players like Deshaun Lee, TJ Hall, and Koen Entringer, and Iowa’s secondary is as deep and talented as any in the country. Even without an elite pass rush, Iowa’s back five has still been strong enough to forge the Hawkeye pass defense into one of the country’s best.

Iowa’s linebackers are similarly worthy of acclaim. The trio of senior linebackers Jay Higgins, Nick Jackson, and Kyler Fisher have been excellent against both the run and pass all season long. Higgins leads the Big Ten in tackles and is third in the nation with 113 stops. Watching Higgins command the defense, diagnose opponents’ plays, and shout out audibles is like watching a star player becoming a coach in real time, all while being one of the surest tacklers in college football. Jackson has been an excellent co-star to Higgins and has excelled at penetrating the line of scrimmage and quickly closing the gap between himself and the ballcarrier. While Fisher gets fewer snaps than his teammates thanks to the preeminence of Iowa’s 4-2-5 scheme, he has been great in coverage, providing Iowa with enough versatility to play the 4-3 without getting burnt in coverage.

Finally, Iowa’s defensive line has been as stout as expected coming into the season. While the Hawkeyes have not generated many sacks this year, the pass rush has improved as the season has progressed, and the front four has done an excellent job corralling opposing running backs. Even without Noah Shannon, defensive tackles Logan Lee and Yahya Black have been stout in the interior. Between Iowa’s starters and its backups Aaron Graves and Jermiah Pittman, the Hawkeyes have had sufficient depth to keep Anterio Thompson, an athletic freak who has blocked two punts already this season, from playing meaningful snaps at the position. Meanwhile, defensive ends Joe Evans and Deontae Craig have developed from pass rush specialists into well-rounded edge players who can funnel ballcarriers into the teeth of the defense as effectively as they can harass opposing quarterbacks behind the line. Finally, Ethan Hurkett has emerged as versatile weapon who can move around the defensive line and would likely be a starter for most Power Five teams in the nation. Should Shannon’s NCAA-imposed gambling suspension ever be lifted, this unit could go from good to elite.

While Iowa’s offense is not likely to get much better before season’s end, the continued strength of the defense despite the loss of several star players to the NFL last season has been enough to propel yet another successful campaign for Kirk Ferentz and his program. If Iowa manages to win the West, Hawkeye fans will know which side of the ball to thank. Phil Parker’s strength of elite defenses might eventually run its course, but 2023 certainly is not the year.