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IOWA CITY — A defense that imposes its will is active.
When defenders can find their keys and attack the ball with purpose, the defense becomes the aggressor and can control the game. For the first two weeks of the season, Iowa’s defense was active; the Hawkeyes were the aggressor.
Against North Dakota State, Iowa (2-1) was too often forced into being passive, into reacting instead of acting. Head Coach Kirk Ferentz said going into that game that the Bison were good at giving teams multiple looks, but disguising those looks. The Hawkeyes got the full taste of that Saturday — medicine they’re used to giving out instead of taking.
“There are a lot of little intricate things that they do, and same thing with us, there are little intricate things that we do that make it tough, and they did a couple things I thought that were really clever and creative that may have put our guys on their heels a little bit,” Ferentz said. “When I go back to the things in my mind that were really critical plays, some opportunities we had, it gets back to us being a little bit better with just our fundamentals, and quicker to close things off, shut gaps off, that type of thing.
“We’ve got to do a better job there to shut off drives; get off the field.”
The keys a defense uses are ways for defenders to anticipate the kind of play that’s coming and where the ball is going. A skilled defense can use those keys to fit the defensive assignments in a way that enables defenders to be more efficient in getting to the point of attack.
Linebacker Josey Jewell is the harbinger of defense for the Hawkeyes, and said NDSU found ways to force Iowa into secondary and tertiary keys. Jewell said the challenge is to move through defensive progressions as quickly as possible to get the defense in position.
As it turned out, on too many occasions, the Bison made it fuzzy enough on the Hawkeyes’ defense that by the time the correct key was found, it was too late.
“They changed up some stuff, trying to pull us out with some guards and stuff like that, trying to maneuver us different ways and try to get us out of the box,” Jewell said. “So we just had to focus in on the other keys that align themselves after the offensive line and really hone in on the whole play.
“They knew where to put the ball most of the time. Really, we just have to keep working on those small assignment things and focus in on our details and improve ourselves from there.”
For a unit full of players who pride themselves in being aggressive, being forced into reactionary plays was endlessly frustrating in the moment and even more so on film.
Fellow linebacker Ben Niemann used “frustrated” as a word to describe how film went, and agreed NDSU put them in situations they had to react to. He referenced getting to the “white board and changing the way we play things.”
Though Niemann thought defenders were “flying around,” he acknowledged the Bison are good at a few things that will naturally make a player tentative.
“They’re probably the best cut-blocking team we’ve seen, especially in space, so that’s hard,” Niemann said. “I think if you’re passive, it hurts you. If you’re soft and not aggressive, it’s going to cause problems and you’re not going to be in your fits as fast either. I don’t think you can really play cautious. If you do, it’s going to cause issues.
“Sometimes it’s hard, with cut blocks, being tentative because you don’t know if they’re going to cut you or hit you high. So sometimes you come up to those a little bit slow.”
If the Hawkeyes know why they weren’t the ones putting NDSU in those situations, or why it worked out the way it did Saturday, they didn’t share it on Tuesday. It’s possible the several plays where there were lapses in responsibilities or delays in finding those keys are unanswerable.
But Ferentz and his players insist it’s all correctable. They better, Ferentz said, because it’s not like their Big Ten opponents are going to make it easy.
“If you’re not going to be a good tackling team, if you don’t get the right fits and replacements, those types of things, then it’s going to be difficult, and those were the things to me that really beat us,” Ferentz said. “People are always going to have a little something for you that you may have to adjust to, and they get you on your heels a little bit, but that’s just football, and it’s always going to happen.”
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