IOWA CITY — Defensive backs are the relief pitchers of football. A lot of times, it’s all or nothing.
Managers ask relief pitchers to run into tough situations and come through. Two on and no outs, here’s the ball. Bases loaded and one out, now that everything has gone to H-E-double hockey sticks, you’re up. The house is on fire, go get my gold fish.
Football doesn’t have innings, but what is that behind defensive backs every week, every play? Those are touchdowns.
There’s a fine line between pressure and strain and pride and motivation.
Yes, defensive backs do take this stuff personally.
“If you notice there’s a trend, this can fuel you,” Iowa senior cornerback Michael Ojemudia said. “You know they probably either think they can take advantage of you or they probably think you’re the weak link. So, you can take that personally.”
But, like relief pitchers, the ball is coming their way again, no matter what the result is. You have to file the defeats because the next snap is only seconds away.
“You always need high spirits,” Ojemudia said. “You don’t want your morale going down. It’s a team sport, so you have to be smart on how you approach things. You might have to step off a little bit, because you don’t want a dude to run right past you.
“You have to be emotionally sane and smart about how you play the game.”
This is the set up for Iowa vs. Purdue 2019.
The No. 23 Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) have to snap a two-game losing streak to the Boilermakers (2-4, 1-2) or the championship part of their Big Ten season is likely over. Iowa can’t afford to fall three games behind Wisconsin.
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Yes, two-game losing streak to Purdue. The Boilermakers have enjoyed a resurgence under third-year head coach Jeff Brohm. You could make an argument that Iowa has been the program’s biggest wins in each of the last two seasons. As an Iowa fan, you probably wouldn’t want to participate in that argument. It doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun.
Last season, Purdue knocked off the then-No. 16 Hawkeyes, 38-36. In 2017, it was 24-15.
The way the Boilers won those games was obvious. Purdue QBs threw seven touchdowns that traveled an average of 32.1 yards.
“These guys throw the ball as deep as anybody we played, in my opinion, over the last two years,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “They did it Saturday (three TD passes, including a 59-yarder, in a 40-14 win over Maryland). Threw the ball down the field well. I’m even more focused on our deep zones than I am our underneath zones.”
Before we go on, this isn’t quite that Purdue.
In 2017, Elijah Sindelar hit two third-quarter bombs to push the Boilers to victory. Sindelar is out this week with a clavicle injury. In 2018, David Blough tossed four TDs to go along with 333 yards. He graduated.
Redshirt freshman Jack Plummer has started the last four games, in which Purdue is 1-3. He showed some signs of life vs. Maryland after enduring TCU, No. 20 Minnesota and No. 7 Penn State, hitting 80 percent completions (33 of 41) with three TD passes.
In 2017, the Boilermakers burned through three Iowa corners in the third quarter — Manny Rugamba, Ojemudia and Matt Hankins, Iowa’s other cornerback in Saturday’s game. Last season, the Boilers targeted freshman corners Riley Moss and Julius Brents.
“I know we went down to the first year, and we hit a couple big plays,” Brohm said about 2017. “They pressed us. We hit a couple big plays over the top, our defense played well and we found a way to win. Just one of those games.”
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On last season: “We found a way to score early, which is important against them because they want to control the football and they want to run the clock,” Brohm said. “We got a lead early, which helps. It’s always going to help against the way they play the game, so just kind of things went our way and we had some luck on our side.”
Purdue ran half a dozen screen passes to blunt Iowa’s rush in last year’s game. It also threw deep passes to the wide side of the field, where the odds of completion drop because it’s such a long pass to make.
“Just in general terms I would say it’s not uncommon for a game to end (and we say), ‘Boy, we didn’t throw the ball deep enough today,’” Ferentz said. “I don’t think they say that very often. They’ll take their shots down the field.”
This year, the Boilermakers simply have to throw the ball. They average just 63.5 rushing yards per game. That’s No. 129 out of the 130 FBS teams.
“You have to expect it,” junior safety Geno Stone said. “You know they’re going to take shots. Our corners and safeties have to be ready to go deep. It’s no secret they’re going to throw it. It doesn’t matter if they guy is covered, they’re going to throw 50/50 balls and hope for a touchdown or a flag.”
Purdue got the flags last season, including a crushing pass interference late in the game that allowed Purdue to kick the game-winning field goal. Ferentz rarely if ever had mentioned officiating in 20 years of postgames. He did last season.
“There’s a PI at the end of the game. Just looking on replay — I didn’t have a good angle — it looked like a clean play to me,” Ferentz said. “It looked like a ball overthrown. I don’t mind telling you that’s a little frustrating for everybody, but there are a million plays in a game that can influence an outcome.”
You can see how the Hawkeyes secondary might take this personally. And, rest assured, they do.
“I’m going to take it personally, because I don’t think anyone should take a shot at me,” Stone said. “I feel like I should be the best safety on the field. If they try to throw at me, it should be an interception or a pass breakup. If they take those shots, I feel like we should be able to get some turnovers.”
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