Iowa's defense crunches some numbers, working on others

This is what 'team defense' looks like, keeps opponent mostly off the scoreboard

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IOWA CITY — It’s kind of amazing how coaches can zoom in on the one thing that irritates the headphones off them.

Three weeks ago at Kinnick Stadium, you saw Penn State running back Saquon Barkley go off for 305 yards from scrimmage against the Hawkeyes. Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker totally gave Barkley, who’s running right at Big Ten MVP, his due, but there was that one 44-yard run where it kind of looked like Barkley’s knee hit the turf.

Parker isn’t letting go of that one.

“Obviously Barkley is a good player, but I think we gave up one explosive play (to him during Penn State’s 21-19 victory),” Parker said. “If you count when his knee was down, that wouldn’t be an explosive play, so we gave up really one explosive play to him.”

Parker’s cantankerous nature pervades Iowa’s defense this season. Well, most seasons. OK, every season.

You might get the Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten), but your face mask is going to be crooked thereafter.

Parker scoffed at stats and what they mean and say and that the biggest stat has and always will remain wins and losses, but some numbers can provide a standard and shape a game plan.

Parker had some he liked for Iowa’s defense and some he doesn’t like.

— Iowa measures points per red zone appearance. The Hawkeyes are ninth in the Big Ten in straight red zone efficiency, allowing opponents to score 15 of 18 times (83 percent). Iowa has allowed 4.3 points per red zone appearance. Parker has the standard set at 4 points.

“I think we’re at 4.3, not good enough,” Parker said.

— Everyone measures explosive plays differently, but 20-yard plays are explosive in everyone’s eyes.

Iowa is tied for 11th in the Big Ten with 23 20-plus plays allowed. It’s tied for 12th with 11 30-plus plays and last in the league with six 40-plus plays allowed.

As you can see, Iowa has played Barkley and Penn State.

“I think another place where we can really improve is not giving up explosive plays,” Parker said.

— Before you take the explosive plays stat and shake your head over Iowa’s defense, the Hawkeyes are 25th in the country in the one defensive stat that trumps all others.

Iowa has allowed just 18.7 points a game this year. The close defeats to Penn State and Michigan State aren’t close if the Hawkeyes’ defense isn’t a team-oriented bunch of bullheaded pluggers who pull together when the threat is at its door.

The Hawkeyes are 11th in the nation in yards per point (20.9), which really just measures how much work an offense has to do to cross the goal line. The top three teams nationally in this? Penn State, Georgia and Alabama.

“Probably the most important stat to me is how many points you’re giving up, and right now we’re at 18.7, which compared to the last four years, I think that’s right on the mark, so that’s interesting,” Parker said. “Our job is to keep them out of the end zone.”

Parker also touched on a few personnel points when he met with media on Wednesday.

— Sophomore Amani Hooker is the new strong safety. Parker was very positive about senior Miles Taylor’s contributions and steady hand bringing Hooker up to speed.

But Hooker is now the starter. Here’s another Barkley reference. You might like this one a little better.

“Go back to the Penn State game Barkley was coming out, and he was a one-on-one, and he tracked him down and made a tackle that was surely going to be a touchdown,” Parker said. “It just shows to me that he’s progressing every day, he’s getting better. I think with (Brandon) Snyder there to help him out, it’s going to help us be a lot better in the back end.”

— You saw linebacker Josey Jewell leave last week’s game with a shoulder injury. He missed two series and literally sprinted back on the field. In the postgame, he said he was fine. Still, Jewell doesn’t leave the field. Think about how much this defense depends on him.

“Yeah, I think this is a perfect time for the bye week,” Parker said. “He’s a tough player. That’s what we’re about, and I think for us, how many snaps he’s playing and how many plays he’s making, it takes a toll on your body ...

The part you wanted to hear ...

“I’m not worried about it, and we’re expecting him to be ready for Northwestern (Oct. 21 at Ryan Field),” Parker said.

— Cornerback Manny Rugamba has missed all but one play in the last two games battling an ankle/foot injury. He finished last season as a starting corner before suffering a broken collarbone. He’s the starter when he’s healthy.

“He’s a very sharp kid football-wise,” Parker said. “So, I don’t think not being on the field mentally is going to bother him. It’s him getting that thing better where he needs to be able to run and cover guys.”

— True freshman A.J. Epenesa has been a bona fide pass-rush threat. He has 2.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss.

Epenesa’s snap count has grown every week. He’s in the mid-30s now, which is a solid number with Iowa rotating four defensive ends and eight D-linemen (which, by the way, is the reason you haven’t seen a “raider” package, but more of a speed rusher package that includes Epenesa and Anthony Nelson with Parker Hesse and Brady Reiff at tackle).

Epenesa is building trust in the run game and more first and second downs should be headed his way soon.

“I think he’s doing a little bit better job of that, and playing on first and second down, he’s understanding that,” Parker said of Epenesa against the run. “Obviously, the reps he’s been getting from camp and all the last six weeks of the season here, I think it’s really going to help us later on in the run game. I think he’s a good run player. I think he can help us in the pass rush on third downs.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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