IOWA CITY — Having a revolving cast of characters hasn’t hurt the Iowa football defense ... yet.
The Hawkeyes go into their game Saturday against Maryland ranked fifth in the nation in total defense, third in rushing defense and 13th in scoring defense. That’s good.
And that’s good even though Iowa has had to use five different starting linebacking combinations and two true freshmen at cornerback because of injuries. You may have heard these guys use the phrase “Next Man In” a time or two over the years.
This season fits.
“I think it’s just the fact that all six or seven of us prepare each week like we’re going to be starters,” said Iowa’s Djimon Colbert about his group of linebackers. “As long as we do that, know that we can be in the rotation, it’s nothing when we get thrown in there. I think that’s the biggest thing for us right now. Keeping that same mentality throughout the rest of the season.”
Saturday could very well be this revolving cast of defensive characters’ biggest challenge, yet, however. Maryland averages 245 yards rushing a game using, well, a revolving cast of characters.
The Terrapins have had three running backs (Ty Johnson, Anthony McFarland and Tayon Fleet-Davis) top 100 yards rushing in a game this season, including a pair of games in which two guys each did it. Johnson and McFarland average over 8 yards a carry, while Fleet-Davis averages a mere 5.
Iowa has faced Wisconsin, so it is familiar with a run-heavy approach. Maryland doesn’t rely on power, but more of a deceptive type of offense.
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“A lot of window dressing,” said Iowa defensive lineman Parker Hesse. “Like shifts, trains, motions, jet type of stuff. Try to get people’s eyes going and get them out of position. Assignment football is kind of what it comes down to.”
“They can do a lot of different things,” Colbert said. “They get into a lot of different personnel (groups) ... They can get into triple options, they can get into jet sweeps, things like that. And they can throw the ball, too. We just have to prepare for everything. It’s a big mental challenge for us, for the linebackers and the DBs. For the whole defense, as a matter of fact. I think it’s one of our more mentally challenging weeks of the season so far.”
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz likened preparing for Maryland to preparing for Georgia Tech. No, not in the wishbone sense, but in the uniqueness of the Terrapins offense.
Quarterback Kasim Hill doesn’t throw it often, as Maryland has the fewest pass attempts in the Big Ten Conference. But when he does, it’s generally in an attempt to hit a home run, so to speak.
“I think the parallel to Georgia Tech is there’s just a lot of things going on,” Ferentz said. “It’s a really important week for us mentally. It’s a different preparation than we’re used to. (They) do a lot of shifts, a lot of motions, a lot of things to different sets to catch you off guard. The thing that jumps out at you is how many big plays come out of it. If our guys aren’t on the same page, communicating well, you open the door for some really big plays. That’s a big danger of playing these guys.”
Now back to the injury topic.
Middle linebacker Jack Hockaday is out for Saturday’s game, though outside Nick Niemann should return after missing two games. It appears Julius Brents and Riley Moss will be the starters again at corner, which would make it three consecutive starts for the freshmen.
Strong safety Amani Hooker’s ability to come down into the box and play has been important for Iowa, which has played more sub packages defensively than usual. This group overall has shown a good amount of versatility and depth.
“As far as guys moving around to different positions, it’s been a little unusual compared to past years,” said free safety Jake Gervase. “(It’s) having trust in one another, trusting that if the coaches are going to put you on the field, you’re going to do your job and that you have the trust of your teammates. We prepare week in and week out as a group. Our big mentality is that if you’re not a starter, you (still) have to prepare like a starter, because you don’t know when your number is going to be called. So far, we’ve seen a lot of that.”
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Iowa is allowing just 81.5 yards per game on the ground through six games. Something’s gotta give Saturday, as the cliche goes.
“Obviously they have good players, big physical veteran line, probably as big as we’ll see,” Ferentz said. “Several running backs, (the) quarterback is a very dangerous player. They play two of them, actually. It’s going to be a big challenge for us. That’s really kind of where we’re at at this point.”
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