The Walk Through - Dealing with Penn State's speed

There's an acceptable number of big plays Iowa can allow and it's probably three

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IOWA CITY — A year has yet to pass since Penn State did mostly anything it wanted on offense against the Hawkeyes.

The Nittany Lions piled up five plays of 40-plus yards. Running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley made music, driving the Lions to 599 yards of total offense, the second-most yards against an Iowa team in Kirk Ferentz’s 19-plus seasons (604 vs. Wisconsin in 1999 is the most).

That was last year. What tonight is going to be depends a lot on how Iowa’s defense contends with the Lions’ top-end speed amoung its skill players.

Tonight is sophomore free safety Amani Hooker’s first start. Here are the few items that were drilled into his head earlier this week:

— The basics. Yes, that’s Iowa’s answer for most anything when it comes to any questions on defensive strategy.

“Tackling, knowing our keys and not trying to do too much,” Hooker said. “Just playing football.”

— Ask any Iowa defensive player and they’ll tell you pursuit is important every game. But that’s not all there is to it. Hooker expanded his answer on this.

“It’s important every week,” Hooker said (see). “It’s leveraging the ball. We have to make sure there are no cut-back lanes. If there’s a cut-back lane, big plays can happen.”

— Hooker will be a first-time starter. Probably every sentence in meetings with defensive coordinator Phil Parker this week has included the term “eye discipline.”

The concept is important every play for every player, but with Hooker being a first-timer, it’s clearly a point of emphasis, especially with Penn State’s fakes, misdirections and motions constantly trying to expose an opening on the perimeter of the defense.

Hooker will be in the middle of a lot of edge defense.

“He’s good at looking off defenders and pump-faking,” Hooker said. “We have to make sure our eyes are in the right spots, not biting on play-action, not biting on a pump fake and just playing our keys.”

— Communication is going to be important. Again, this is an every-week thing, but if one player in the secondary is in the wrong coverage, it’s a welcome mat to a big play and maybe a score. What’s the number of explosive plays Iowa can allow against Penn State and still have a chance to win the game?

You don’t have to answer that. Iowa’s defense will have to at some point.

But let’s throw out three, just for something to shoot for.

The guts of what Iowa’s defense is still have the late Norm Parker’s designs. Parker, who served as Ferentz’s defensive coordinator from 1999 to 2011, installed a 4-3 system knowing Iowa’s team speed wasn’t going to be in the same neighborhood of some of the offenses the Hawkeyes face on a regular basis.

“We haven’t had a lot of NFL corners, I guess. There aren’t a lot of those guys walking around just like left tackles in the NFL,” Ferentz said. “So unless you’ve got a handful of those guys, you just have to play good team defense. I guess that’s the best way I can put it. That’s kind of been what works for us.

“You can probably do — I’m not a good basketball guy — but you can probably do some parallels between some programs. You find out who you are and what you are and then do things that give you a chance to be successful in your world. We feel pretty good.

“We haven’t been great on defense all the time, but we’ve been pretty consistent over the years once we started actually playing it. But it still gets down to position is really critical, and then you’ve got to be able to execute the basic fundamentals, and if you can do that, that gives you a chance to be successful.”

Off the bat, Iowa trails Penn State in recruiting stars in this game. Another thing that can probably go unsaid between these two programs year in and year out.

This is where Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell gets somewhat technical. This also is how Iowa will reel in Penn State, if it can reel in Penn State.

“We’re not all the fastest guys, especially in the linebacker crew,” Jewell said. “You have to choose the right angles to kick them (ball carriers) out to the right people. You have to be able to cut the ball off and bring it in to everyone else.”

When Jewell puts it that way, it makes sense. The Hawkeyes have to funnel speed where they want it to go. Speed has other ideas, and therein lies the Hawkeyes’ quotient for success.

— Iowa’s skill players have jumped on and are now off the field. This is the shirts-and-shorts warmups time.

Wide receiver Max Cooper is running around. He’s in now having played sometime in the last two weeks. Probably not looking at any snaps tonight.

— Getting a sense of Miguel Recinos’ distance today, he just clubbed a 53-yarder that probably would’ve been good from 60. It might’ve been a little into the wind. The ribbons on the uprights are swirling and active.

— Junior safety Brandon Snyder is not in uniform, but he’s on the sideline and has his left knee covered in that magic tape stuff.

Snyder suffered a torn ACL in spring practice. Ferentz was asked this week about the possibility of his return this year.

“Not really,” Ferentz said when asked what the word was about Snyder’s return. “He’s working for it. He’s ahead of, quote-unquote, schedule, whatever that means. His attitude has been great. He’s been pushing hard, and it’s all good. But we’ll see where it goes week by week, but he’s climbing the hill, that’s for sure.”

— RB James Butler also isn’t in uniform, but he’s in sweats and has a brace on his right elbow, He suffered that injury last week and won’t return to the lineup until Oct. 21.

— Starting DL: Hesse, Bazata, Lattimore, A Nelson. No. 2: Brincks, Reiff, M Nelson and Epenesa.

— Starting OL (left to right): Jackson, Myers, Daniels, Render and Sean Welsh.

— Looks like Tristan Wirfs, who suffered an injury in practice, is iffy tonight, per Iowa radio.

— As I typed, Wirfs is iffy. Still he lined up as the No. 2 RT in warmups. No. 2 OL is Wirfs, Levi Paulsen, C Banwart, Ross Reynolds, LeGrand.

— RB James Butler is in sweats. Brace on right elbow. Planning for return after the bye week.

OK, that’s it from here. Enjoy the game.

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

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