116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Miami’s defense flaunts a turnover chain. Oregon State’s revs a turnover chain saw. Army’s wields a turnover broad ax.
“We just get a pick and then we’ll walk off and, ’Atta kid,’” cornerback Riley Moss said. “Then you’ll go back out and try to get another one.”
As others in college football celebrate turnovers with items ranging from a dragon skull to Mardi Gras-style beads on the sideline, Iowa’s secondary has skipped the gaudiness and employed a “blue-collar” mentality to get results.
“Without flashy stuff, we just go out and play football,” Moss said after the Oct. 1 win over Maryland.
That mindset is working for Moss and the rest of the Hawkeyes’ secondary.
Iowa leads the country with 12 interceptions, ranks second with only 11.6 points allowed per game and is fourth among Power Five programs with its 96.1 passer rating allowed.
Those 12 interceptions already are the most the Hawkeyes have grabbed since 2018.
“I joke about it. It's not like we have a drill for this stuff,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “If we did, we should do it more.”
The team prioritizes forcing turnovers in the preseason, though, with the “Ball Hawks” system.
“We can get points off of sacks, and then if you scoop the ball after an incomplete pass — because you never know if it’s incomplete or not — that’s a point,” defensive end John Waggoner said. “It’s pretty fun in the preseason to compete in that.”
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker also “preaches perfection every week,” cornerback Terry Roberts said.
“As long as you communicate, you’re in the right areas, you’re going to do great things as a defense,” Roberts said Tuesday.
Parker said the team targets having three or more turnovers per game.
“We count if you get a stop on fourth down and get good field position,” Parker said.
Even without the unofficial turnovers Parker also counts, the defense has been close to hitting that goal with 16 takeaways in five games.
The defense also focuses on giving up no more than two plays of 25-plus yards in a game.
“The odds show you give up 13, 14 points a game if you give up two,” Parker said. “If you have anything above that, you’re giving up 28.”
The secondary has received some help from the defensive front, too.
While the defense ranks just seventh in the Big Ten in sacks, frequent pressure has made star quarterbacks like Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa or Iowa State’s Brock Purdy more uncomfortable in the pocket.
“I made a point in letting our guys know, by record, we didn't have a sack the other night,” Ferentz said, referencing the Maryland win. “We were making the quarterback uncomfortable. There's value in that, too.
“If you can get the guy moving where he's not comfortable, throw the ball, that stuff doesn't show in the stat column.”
Tight end Sam LaPorta is more than familiar with the strength of Iowa’s secondary as he goes against it every day in practice. He said it “absolutely” makes him better.
“I hope I’m making them better,” LaPorta said with a laugh. “But maybe not.”
When the defense bests LaPorta and the other receivers in practice, he certainly hears about it.
“That’s kind of the joke the rest of the day if they got the best of us that day or if we got the best of them,” LaPorta said.
It’s not like one player has been individually carrying the secondary. Seven different players have recorded at least one interception this season. Three different players have picked off at least two passes.
In the big win against Maryland that served as a magnum opus for this secondary, each of the six interceptions came from a different defensive back.
“We expect and hold high standards for all our guys that get on the field, and we rep pretty evenly with the first group and the second group” Parker said.
Roberts, who made a name for himself first on special teams, is officially a backup on Iowa’s depth chart, but Ferentz considers him a third starter at cornerback.
“If we didn’t have two seniors that are pretty good, he’d be in there starting,” Ferentz said. “He competes hard, loves football, loves his teammates and brings a really positive energy.”
Parker has lauded the junior cornerback’s energy, too.
“He’s full-go,” Parker said. “I really enjoy coaching him, and he’s really going to have a good future.”
The FBS-leading secondary has accomplished its feats with a group of players who were not heavily recruited out of high school.
Roberts, for example, was a three-star recruit and had scholarship offers from Iowa and Duquesne, according to his Rivals profile.
Moss, who has an FBS-high three interceptions, was a two-star recruit, according to Rivals, and chose Iowa over smaller programs like Northern Illinois, North Dakota State, South Dakota State and North Dakota.
Kaevon Merriweather, Iowa’s starting strong safety, had more recruiting interest for basketball than football. He didn’t even try out for his high school’s football team right away in 2017.
“I didn’t think anybody would take me seriously,” Merriweather said.
Iowa “just thought he had some potential as a football player,” Ferentz said, and the staff was right.
He started in five games in 2020 and all five games so far in 2021.
“Last year is really the first year we had enough faith and trust in him to see him as a starter,” Ferentz said.
Dane Belton was a three-star recruit when he committed to Iowa. Rivals didn’t even give any stars to starting free safety Jack Koerner.
Off the field, the defensive backs are “all goofy guys,” Merriweather said, and each person “has their own personality.” They “talk smack about each other” a lot, too.
“I dropped a pick in the Indiana game, and they’ve been giving me crap about it for like the past five weeks,” Merriweather said.
Smack talk aside, his teammates were excited when he caught an interception — and didn’t drop it — against Maryland.
“We’re pretty much like a brotherhood back there,” Merriweather said.
Iowa’s defense doesn’t have any plans of changing that no-gimmick mentality in the near future. Parker would rather his players “enjoy with themselves” and “be happy for each other” than prance with a turnover chain.
Seeing the gaudy turnover items other schools boast, Parker said, is “really discouraging to me a little bit of is that what it’s about nowadays.”
Even if Parker were a fan of the celebratory chains, broad ax and chain saw, his players seem satisfied with Iowa’s “blue-collar” mindset, too.
“I honestly just prefer it this way,” Waggoner said. “I feel like we’re excited enough to get a turnover and have that pride of just getting the turnover in itself rather than having some type of gimmick.”
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