Admit it, you were worried about this Iowa defensive front after the first two games.
It wasn’t producing any quarterback pressure. No one was close to getting home.
Purdue wore it out in the second half of the opener with a strong rushing attack. Northwestern climbed out of a 17-point hole in Game 2 thanks to back-to-back elongated drives spurred by running the football.
But something has happened since then, something good.
“The growth,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said, after Saturday’s 41-21 win at Penn State. “We were less than impressive, in my opinion, three weeks ago, four weeks ago. Starting with the run. We were too soft on the run. I know a lot of questions were being asked about what we were going to do about getting (QB) pressure.”
The primary four-man line of Chauncey Golston and Zach VanValkenburg at end and Daviyon Nixon and Jack Heflin at tackle has jelled. Backups such as Joe Evans and Noah Shannon have provided depth.
VanValkenburg, an unheralded senior transfer from Division II Hillsdale College in Michigan, was last week’s Big Ten Conference Defensive Player of the Week after recording three sacks against Minnesota. He had a pair of fumble recoveries against Penn State.
“Absolutely pure luck,” he insisted. “That’s why they tell you to run to the ball. My teammates did a great job of knocking it out both times, and I was just at the right place at the right time.”
Golston is playing the best football of his career, the senior intercepting a pass Saturday originally tipped by Nixon. He ranks among the Big Ten leaders in sacks (3) and tackles for loss (6).
Heflin is a grad transfer from Northern Illinois who takes up a lot of space in the middle. Nixon has been a revelation in his senior season, second in the Big Ten in tackles for loss (8.5) and coming off a brilliant game against Penn State that was capped by that highlight-reel 71-yard interception and return for touchdown.
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“We know that this team feeds off our energy, and everything starts up front,” Nixon said. “Whether it’s O-line or D-line, it starts up front with us. We know we’ve got to go out every game, every series, every play and try to make a difference in the game.”
“Personally, and as a team, we’ve gotten a lot more comfortable,” VanValkenburg said. “I know for myself, I’m just trying to play fast. Not not trying to make mistakes but trying to create plays.”
Iowa is third in the Big in scoring defense (16.0 points against per game) and total defense (319.8 yards against per game). It is fourth in rushing defense, third in passing defense and second in sacks with 16.
After being gouged early in Saturday’s game on draws by Penn State quarterback Will Levis, Iowa’s defense adjusted and shut that play down. Penn State finished with just 62 yards rushing and had four turnovers.
Linebacker Nick Niemann was huge with a game-high 17 tackles for the Hawkeyes, though he insisted the defensive line played a huge role in those gaudy numbers.
“When they’re doing their jobs keeping their linemen off the linebackers, it’s easy for us to run free and make plays,” he said.
Of course, it’s not just the line that has gotten better the last three weeks. It’s the linebackers, the secondary, everyone.
But it all starts up front. And that’s where Iowa has returned to being Iowa.
“We’re really focused on our individual assignments,” VanValkenburg said. “But when you have that opportunity to make those plays, you make them. I think we have a lot of synergy as a unit.”
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“That’s all part of the growth process, whether it’s younger guys or guys like VanValkenburg, an older guy but just his second year on the team,” Ferentz said. “You can just see him growing each and every week out there. When the older guys are doing that, the younger guys just follow, and you’ve got a chance maybe to put a good team together. I’m pleased with the progress. Hopefully we’ve got a lot more left in us.”
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