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IOWA CITY — The defensive battle between No. 17 Indiana and No. 18 Iowa on Saturday will be like a side-by-side picture in a gossip magazine asking: who wore it best?
At first glance, they have a lot in common: both play a 4-2-5 defense (four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs). But one thing Indiana does more often than Iowa is blitz. If effective, it leads to questionable and troublesome decisions by the opposing offense.
In 2020, that meant leading the Big Ten with 17 interceptions, which was second nationally. In addition, it allowed a Big Ten-low of 64 points by opponents in the red zone through eight games. Indiana led the Big Ten in overall opponent turnovers per game at 2.5.
Iowa junior running back Tyler Goodson said it’s those blitzes, coupled with a strong pair of linebackers behind the line that emphasize the need to be strong up front.
“Most of their turnovers come from them being aggressive,” Goodson said.
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz and offensive line coach George Barnett did not have a clear answer as to who will start on the line this Saturday other than junior center Tyler Linderbaum. With senior Kyler Schott injured at the right guard position, both said it’s likely Iowa is rotating six to eight different offensive linemen throughout the game.
Those names include sophomore Justin Britt (right guard), redshirt freshman Josh Volk (right guard), sophomore Nick DeJong (right tackle), true freshman Connor Colby (right tackle), junior Cody Ince (left guard), redshirt freshman Tyler Elsbury (left guard), junior Jack Plumb (left tackle) and redshirt freshman Mason Richman (left tackle).
“As the week goes, we've really started to pinpoint who plays,” Barnett said on Wednesday. “It's going to happen closer to Friday.”
Iowa’s plan on offense doesn’t change. In fact, a conservative approach is most likely what’s expected anyway. In the offseason, Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz emphasized the importance of gaining incremental yardage by completing short passes to allow receivers to make plays in space while also relying on a trusted running back in Goodson, who averaged 5.3 yards on 143 carries and added 152 yards receiving on 15 catches, averaging 10.1 yards.
“The cliche of DBs (defensive backs) is that they're receivers that can't catch, like these guys take advantage of the opportunities you give them,” Petras said. "To me, it really becomes important that balls need to be placed correctly and if they're not, then you know you run the risk of turning the ball over.“
Indiana’s secondary is not only deep, returning seven of its eight defensive backs, but also unique in the fact it had players in the secondary making plays up front in the pass rush. Junior first-team All-America cornerback Taiwan Mullen led Big Ten defensive backs in sacks (3.5) and tackles for loss (4.5).
Iowa similarly returns depth to its secondary and was not far behind in turning over the ball last year. The team collected a total of 11 interceptions, averaging 1.5 per game for third in the Big Ten. Individually, cornerback Riley Moss led the Big Ten in interception return yards and senior safety Jack Koerner was tied with Mullen with three interceptions. Indiana had two other players on its roster with four interceptions apiece — Jamar Johnson (drafted and signed by the Denver Broncos) and Jaylin Williams.
There’s also still some uncertainty as to how much of Indiana’s defensive plan will change under new coordinator Charlton Warren, a former defensive backs coach at Georgia.
“First games you never really know exactly what's going to happen,” Petras said. “We have our idea of what we think might happen.”
Indiana head coach Tom Allen converted the defense to a 4-2-5 when he arrived as defensive coordinator in 2015 after the Hoosiers had the worst pass defense in the Big Ten, adding the “husky” position.
The “husky” is similar to Iowa’s “cash” position, which is an outside linebacker and cornerback hybrid. The “husky” is considered to be a hybrid linebacker and safety combination. With Warren joining the staff, Indiana adds the “bull,” position, which is a defensive end who can drop into coverage like a cornerback. On the surface, it looks like a 3-3-5 lineup, since the fourth player does not line up in a three-point stance like the rest of the linemen.
Warren assured that’s not the case in March.
Redshirt senior Alfred Bryant is listed as starting in this position on the depth chart, but behind him is Auburn junior transfer Jaren Handy.
“That position is very versatile because he’s a guy that can rush, he’s a guy that can cover, he’s a guy that can blitz, it takes a special skill set to play that position,” Warren told the media on March 22.
But the defensive line on both sides is largely untested as units. Indiana’s features transfers from Auburn, Ole Miss and Northern Illinois while Iowa’s will have three veteran non-starters playing at a time.
Stopping a flashy offense
It’s no secret that Iowa is replacing a hefty load in its defensive front this year after losing three members to the NFL.
But the versatility Iowa has at linebacker and in the experienced secondary is exactly what it wants against an air-raid offense like Indiana’s.
The Hoosiers are known for spreading the ball outside the numbers and leaving it up to senior Big Ten Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year Ty Fryfogle to make plays.
Some examples are best seen in Indiana’s game against Michigan, within the first three seconds of this video, you can see Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. throw to Fryfogle from 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and Fryfogle turn that into a 20-yard gain. He later lobs a similar pass to Indiana’s former running back Stevie Scott III to do the same.
Last year, Fryfogle caught 37 passes for 721 yards and seven touchdowns. Indiana was No. 2 in the Big Ten to Purdue in average attempted passes per game (36.5) for an average 250 passing yards per game, which was fifth in the Big Ten.
“I'm not really a DB, but I mean I feel like our DBs are approaching it the same way as us, it's going to take all 11 guys out there on the field to be able to contain him,” Iowa junior linebacker Jack Campbell said. “As a linebacker, we're just gonna have to get out to our zone a little bit quicker because it's going to be a farther zone away from what we're used to.”
Moss said he’s worked more on his press coverage this offseason to counter big playmakers like Fryfogle to disrupt his path. But Indiana lines up in formations that maximize all of its receiving personnel. Iowa’s defense might lean to the nickel and dime formations, to leaning heavily on its defensive backs and use its cash player, junior Dane Belton, to help cover ground.
“There’s not one player to focus on, it splits between formations,” Belton said. “Each receiver can do each position and each route.”
Penix threw for 491 yards and five touchdowns against Ohio State last year before his injury, and his second-most productive game was against No. 23 Michigan, where he threw for 342 yards. Ohio State and Michigan were No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, in average passing yards allowed per game.
“It reminds me of a Purdue, their air raid,” Moss said. “Their quarterback is not afraid to throw the 50/50 ball which, as a corner, is fun. I love the opportunity.”
Indiana adds USC graduate transfer running back Stephen Carr, who is listed as the No. 1 back on the roster after graduating Scott, but historically does not use its ground game much except to gain short yardage. The Hoosiers averaged 3.3 yards per carry on the ground as a team last year, which was the second lowest in the Big Ten while being No. 10 in average attempts.
In the end, it’s two modernized 4-2-5 defenses returning similar depth in the secondary and an air-raid offense versus a pro-style trying to make plays against them.
The question will be: Who wore the defensive outfit best?
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