BUILD AN EDGE. After a dismal end to the 2014 season in the Taxslayer Bowl - where the Hawkeye defense allowed Tennessee to run for 283 yards - Iowa committed to a new mantra for the 2015 defense: Build an edge. Perhaps the new edge was present in August at our first view of this 2015 team. What was clear, Iowa had an ass-kicker at defensive end and his name is Drew Ott.
Ott's season started with a bang in an opening win over Illinois State where he dominated just as he had in that open practice in front of 8,000 Hawkeye fans. He recorded three tackles and two sacks and let the rest of the schedule know Iowa had something to fear when calling pass plays. Ott's season never got on track after that first game as he bent his arm backwards against Iowa State and after getting back on the field with one arm, he tore an ACL on the punt return team against Illinois. Still, he finished with five sacks, the biggest one stripping Joel Stave of the ball at Wisconsin, but more importantly, the Iowa defense didn't fall apart with Parker Hesse replacing him.
Hesse wasn't the give-your-quarterback-nightmares pass rusher that Ott was. Not by any means. Hesse managed to record one sack against Purdue (also one in mop-up time against Illinois State) after Ott's departure. He was serviceable and made the play of his young career on the road at Nebraska sniffing out a screen and tipping it to himself for an interception and an easy TD. Hesse will return for his sophomore season likely a tad heavier than the 250 pounds he played at this year. He'll likely start for the next three years and perhaps become that threat off the edge Iowa needs.
Nate Meier was the anchor on the other side of the defensive line. Meier, too, wasn't the pass rush threat that Ott was. Not a lot of defensive ends in the Big Ten really are, to be fair. Meier proved to be more than "serviceable," though, posting the best numbers of his career and besting his previous season high for sacks by five. Meier recorded nine tackles against Purdue on senior day. That was the high point before injuries and maybe fatigue set in. Meier recorded eight tackles in the final three games combined. His injuries occasionally sent him to the sideline to be replaced by Matt Nelson.
The stats tell the story regarding the decline of the Iowa defense as the season wore on. The Hawkeyes allowed only one rushing touchdown in the first eight games. They allowed 10 in the final six. Prior to Indiana, Iowa did not allow a team to gain over 400 yards of total offense. In the final six games, five teams did so. Iowa surrendered 5.91 yards per play and while Stanford has the world's best college football player, Minnesota and Purdue do not. Iowa racked up only six sacks while they had 24 in the eight games prior. They allowed over 27 points a game in that final six game span.
Those stats also display how hard it really is to go 12-0. A football season is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to be a bit lucky and good. Iowa's developmental program often means depth can be an issue. This year, redshirt freshmen Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson were able to provide just enough to win four of those six final games. They did so one or two years ahead of schedule.
Iowa may return eight starters in 2016 and still have only three seniors on defense. The Hawkeyes will have to find depth on the defensive line to spell Jaleel Johnson and Nate Bazata so that they don't wear down like they did in 2015. Faith Ekakitie will be back back as will Kyle Terlouw inside. There's also Michael Slater, perhaps the future at defensive tackle. There's also Garrett Jansen at defensive end. Iowa may again need something from redshirt freshmen in 2016. Let's hope the results are similar to this past season's Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson success stories -- as we saw this year, Iowa will need help if they're going to maintain a top defensive effort until the end of the season.