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IOWA CITY — Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on … well, the read-option, in many cases.
That’s not exactly how the old phrase goes, but for defenses in this era of college football, it’s apt. Misdirection has become the go-to for a vast array of college football offenses, and it’s put a premium on defensive players who can stay patient and disciplined in their responsibilities.
Iowa welcomes Northwestern into Kinnick Stadium on Saturday for an 11 a.m. Homecoming kickoff, and the Wildcats will bring plenty of read-option plays with them.
Whether throwing or running, Northwestern (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten) operates primarily from the pistol formation and uses one or two-running back backfields to disguise their look as much as possible. With the athleticism of both quarterback Clayton Thorson and running back Justin Jackson, there’s going to be plenty of pressure on the Hawkeyes (3-1, 1-0) to turn around what’s been an at-times rocky go of it in run defense.
“We can always do more. What we’ve done so far isn’t enough,” said defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson. “We’ve given up so many plays, so many yards. It’s just a matter of us doing a whole lot more a lot better.
“It’s just a matter of being disciplined and hearing the calls. There’s nothing you can really do or say. You just have to be really, really honed into what’s going on and hearing the calls.”
Northwestern has struggled on the ground in the last few weeks and currently ranks 119th of 128 FBS teams in yards per carry at 3.1.
Jackson, who came into the season with some hype, has been the only running back with significant carries this season with 339 yards in 83 carries (4.1 ypc) and three touchdowns. Thorson, the only other player in the backfield with more than six carries this season, has been all or nothing in the run game. He has 41 net yards total this season in 34 carries. His carries have gone up and down, varying in how many times he’s kept the ball in the read-option — the best manifestation of that being against Nebraska, where he ripped off a 42-yard touchdown run on an option keeper in the first half.
Northwestern doesn’t limit their options to running the ball, either. The Wildcats’ other touchdown against the Huskers came on a triple-option read in which Thorson faked to the fullback, went through his reads with an option to pitch to a sweeping Jackson, but found Austin Car for a 24-yard touchdown. His patience in option passes have turned into multiple big plays and a few touchdowns.
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz downplayed any run woes for Northwestern, saying “they do a good job of really executing what they do, and they put a lot of pressure on you in a lot of different ways.”
Defensively, Iowa has to especially rely on the defensive front at the point of attack to either flush or snuff out the options provided.
“A lot of things are timing up front. Anytime there’s movement or stuff like that, you just time it up with where the ball is, really, and just play it out leveraging the ball,” said defensive end Parker Hesse. “In football, everyone’s trying to mess you up. It’s not so much that and that’s not an excuse at all, we have to be on top of our stuff and get the job done. That’s what you’re out on the field for.
“Anytime you’ve got the option, everyone’s got to do their job. If you take care of that, you’ll have hat on a hat and be able to take care of it.”
Iowa’s defense is giving up 4.0 yards per carry and 179 yards per game on the ground this season, numbers no one in Hawkeye gear is thrilled about. The Hawkeyes are also middle of the road nationally in pass defense, giving up 6.96 yards per attempt.
They’ve not faced a team that runs as much out of the read-option, either, and Saturday will make for a test of a few different aspects of the Hawkeyes’ defense.
Ultimately, the players said, it comes down to an oft-cited Iowa principle of doing your job.
“We’ve seen it enough that we know what to expect. Come game time, you’re also going to get a different look. It’s never going to be the same going against the scout team in practice,” Johnson said. “Just read the guy across from you. You’re going to get different looks. It might be the same play, but a different look up front. Just read your key. That’s all we can really do up front.
“It’s a matter of keeping the guy (Thorson or Jackson) contained. … Patience is huge. If you’re not focused on that, (Thorson is) going to make plays all day.”
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