Iowa’s re-emergence as a Big Ten power is one of the great stories of the season so far. But what do you do if you’re the Iowa defense, which has been overshadowed by the unrelenting power of its offensive counterpart? You need a statement game.
It came on Saturday when Iowa beat Michigan 34-9 in the Big House.
The Iowa defense – particularly its front four, which deserves as many accolades as Brad Banks and the offense -set the tone for the game on Michigan’s first drive. On 1st-and-10 from his own 25-yard line, Michigan quarterback John Navarre dropped back and sent an incomplete pass to Braylon Edwards. But as he let the ball leave his hands Navarre suffered a bruising hit, courtesy of Iowa’s senior defensive tackle Colin Cole. Cole found his way up the middle of Michigan’s offensive line and hit Navarre so hard the 6-foot-6, 218-pound quarterback had to leave the game.
“He got up slowly, and we knew right then we had gotten to him – even that early in the game,” junior defensive tackle Jared Clauss said.
If the mission was to set the tone, then mission accomplished.
“As long as (Navarre) was moving his feet and couldn’t set himself, we had him pretty beat,” Cole said. “Other than that one run (for 39 yards), he wanted to sit back there as much as he could, and he took a lot of hits for that.”
Iowa has the second best rush defense in the country, allowing just over 60 yards per game on the ground. Michigan managed just 22 against the Hawkeyes, which had as much to do with the perceived quality of the Iowa front four as its actual performance. Michigan came out throwing, seemingly intimidated by the prospect of trying to grind it out against Cole and his teammates.
“It seems to be a theme that every week we come in and they don’t try to run the ball that much,” Clauss said.
The Wolverines are not the first team to adjust their game plan to avoid running into the Iowa line. And as teams go to the air, the Iowa secondary, which has been identified as the team’s weak link, has improved because of the entire defense’s focus on the opposition’s passing attack. Navarre, who was second in the conference in passing yards entering the game, threw for just 116 yards.
“Navarre is a pocket passer and we wanted to get him out of his comfort zone,” safety Scott Boleyn said. “We did.”
After Michigan punt returner Markus Curry fumbled early in the third quarter – considered by both sides to be the turning point in the game – Michigan managed two first downs, and crossed midfield just once. An Iowa penalty moved the chains the first time; the second first down came on the game’s last drive, when junior Spencer Brinton completed a 12-yard pass to Edwards.
On many of the three-and-outs that came in that second half Navarre was sacked or hurried to force a Michigan punt. Iowa defensive end Howard Hodges recorded two of those third-down sacks, burning Michigan offensive tackle Courtney Morgan.
“I don’t think I played like I needed to,” Morgan said. “You have your ups and downs, but in a game like this I can’t afford so many bad plays.”
Iowa has been fighting for respect all year, but its defense feels that it not only has something to prove, but that it is the difference-maker from week to week.
“We’re not No. 1 draft picks,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We’re just guys who work hard. These are our guys -we’ve got guys 6-foot-7, we’ve got guys 5-foot-8 – but our guys go out and believe in each other and they play hard.”
Iowa plays Wisconsin next, then finishes its Big Ten season against Northwestern and Minnesota. If the Hawkeyes win out, they will be in good position to go to their first Rose Bowl since 1990. The defense is taking it one game at a time, but is confident that if it plays like it did on Saturday, things will be fine with or without respect.
“We’re smelling Badgers right now,” Cole said. “We had to make sure we put a statement out there that if you don’t prepare for us, if you think you’re just going to push us around, you’ve got another thing coming.”