Iowa Football

Pick U: Iowa defense continues streaks of interceptions, but there is no 'magic potion'

Iowa has an interception in 11 straight games

Iowa defensive back Jack Koerner (28), intercepting a pass against Michigan State on Nov. 7. leads the Hawkeyes with thr
Iowa defensive back Jack Koerner (28), intercepting a pass against Michigan State on Nov. 7. leads the Hawkeyes with three picks this season. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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This is not the University of Offensive Linemen. It’s not Tight End University.

Iowa is neither of those, despite the number of dudes at those positions that were high NFL draft picks. In recent years, Wirfs, Hockenson, Fant, etc., etc.

This school truthfully has become Pick U instead. Or Pick You, if you are the opposing quarterback.

Iowa has more interceptions since 2017 than any FBS school in the nation (61). It has recorded a pick-6 (interception return for touchdown) 13 consecutive years.

That one’s especially impressive.

The Hawkeyes go into their encounter Saturday afternoon at Penn State (2:30 p.m., BTN) having at least one pick in 11 consecutive games. They had two last week at Minnesota.

“It’s not necessarily something that we keep track of, but we try to get three turnovers a game, whether they be interceptions or funble recoveries,” said Iowa free safety Jack Koerner. “So it’s not something we keep track of on a game-by-game basis, necessarily. That we have a streak going. But we definitely make it a point to (try to) get takeaways.”

Koerner has picks in Iowa’s last three games, so he’s on his own little personal streak. His four intereptions are the most over these last 11 games, followed by cornerback Riley Moss with three.

Here are the pick specifics:

• Last week at Minnesota: (Koerner and Moss)

Nov. 7 vs. Michigan State (Koerner, Moss, Barrington Wade)

• Oct. 31 vs. Northwestern (Koerner)

• Oct. 24 at Purdue (Wade, Matt Hankins)

• Holiday Bowl, Dec. 27, 2019 against USC (Nick Niemann)

• Nov. 29, 2019, at Nebraska (Koerner)

• Nov. 23, 2019, vs. Ilinois (Hankins, Michael Ojemudia)

• Nov. 16, 2019, vs. Minnesota (Moss)

• Nov. 9, 2019, at Wisconsin (Hankins)

• Oct. 26, 2019, at Northwestern (Chauncey Golston)

• Oct. 19, 2019, vs. Purdue (Moss)

So why are the Hawkeyes so consistently interception happy?

“That’s simple,” said Iowa strong safety Kaevon Merriweather. “We’re in the film room pretty much all the time, 24-7. Especially us DBs, we put in extra hours in the film room, we see the things offenses are trying to do. Coach (Phil) Parker does a great job of breaking down the other team’s offense, knowing what could potentially hurt us going into the game. We pretty much go through everything throughout the week.”

Defensive coordinator Phil Parker concurred with Merriweather. It’s all about preparation, all about finding opportunities in Iowa’s zone concept.

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While you’d think man-to-man, press coverage defensively might produce more picks, Parker said that’s not true.

“I think it has probably been a couple different things,” he said. “We’re mainly a zone type of matchup team ... in the back end for many reasons. I like to have more zone eyes than man eyes, and what I mean by that, a lot of people that played man-to-man, it’s very hard to get interceptions when you’re playing so much man-to-man.

"The way we’ve done it has been in a lot of quarters, a lot of quarter match, opportunities for guys the way they prepare, they study, they understand the game, they understand the splits, they recognize formations. They understand tendencies. It develops from guys preparing.”

Parker said the ability to prepare properly doesn’t come easily. It takes time.

“It’s not like you just go out there and say, ‘Hey, this is my first year. I picked up all this information and gathered it and everybody has an opportunity to go out there and play,’” Parker said. “What happens is you start seeing, recognizing things a lot easier the more film you watch. And then you start ... the more you focus in on the game plan during the week and understand what somebody is doing to you, you start seeing things that it’s hard to describe to just the average person, as far as preparation-wise.

“They see the games on Saturday, they don’t understand how much knowledge or how much preparation that somebody has put into it. And the ability to see things and be able to make that decision (of) are you going to go for the pick, are you going to go for the interception ... or are you going to go for the tackle?”

Guys like Koerner and Merriweather are quick to point out the importance of a good pass rush. You harass the quarterback, he’s more likely to make a quick and bad decision or an errant throw.

Everyone knows the importance of a player like A.J. Epenesa, now with the Buffalo Bills. Iowa’s pass rush this season was negligible the first two games but has really come on the last two.

Zach VanValkenburg was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after three sacks against Minnesota.

“Makes our job in the secondary that much easier,” Moss said.

But it’s not easy. It’s not easy to be so successful, so picky, if you will.

“I’d like to tell you we have a drill for it. I’ve heard coaches talk about drills for turnovers and all that, different gimmicks and all that stuff. We don’t do that,” said Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. “But we do try to coach just good technique and fundamentals. And film study is a big part of it. A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time, and a lot it is being an in-tune football player and then hustling, working hard.

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“Certainly pleased about it, but I don’t know if we have any magic potion or pixie dust or anything like that. Guys are just doing a good job.”

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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