IOWA CITY — Another game, another high-pressure, “you have to come through or else,” another “put out the fire,” another “can you hold this until the offense figures it out” for the Iowa defense.
If you peel the No. 17 Hawkeyes (8-3, 5-3 Big Ten) like a banana, the actual banana part is the defense.
Illinois (6-5, 4-4) kicked a field goal to make it 16-10 with 10:52 left in the Hawkeyes’ 19-10 victory Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa’s offense had a chance to answer. On third-and-4, quarterback Nate Stanley threw a 3-yard pass to wide receiver Tyrone Tracy and the Hawkeyes ended up punting.
The Fighting Illini got good field position out of it, too, taking over at their 37.
It was OK if you sunk in your bleacher seat or beanbag chair or wherever you watch the game at this point. At this point, yes, the Hawkeyes had allowed an underdog to hang around long enough for a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter.
This was the Illini’s chance and senior middle linebacker Kristian Welch stripped QB Brandon Peters of the ball. Iowa recovered and drove for a field goal and a 19-10 lead with 2:44 left.
The Illini’s one real shot went up in flames.
Again, it came down to a defensive response. The entirety of 2019 has been the Hawkeyes defense responding.
“The pressure is on us and we take that as a defense,” Welch said. “We expect that. We want that pressure to perform as a defense. You’ve got to roll with the punches. They’re going to make plays, but the ‘bend don’t break’ mentality is what helped.”
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The Hawkeyes are top 10 in the nation in scoring defense, at No. 5 and 12.2 points a game. Iowa is No. 13 in the nation in total defense (306.1 yard per game). Since Phil Parker took over as defensive coordinator in 2012, his defenses have been top 25 every season but 2012 and 2017 (when the Hawkeyes finished 36th in the country).
So, yes, the defense was a prominent topic of discussion in Iowa’s postgame.
“Yeah, I don’t get too excited about stuff, but I did think this week, that’s pretty good,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We’re 12, whatever we were average wise. So you don’t get excited about statistics, but now we are into November, so they do have a some bearing and credit to those guys.”
With one game left in the season — Black Friday this week at Nebraska (5-6, 3-5), which will be playing for bowl eligibility — that is actually a fairly enormous compliment from Ferentz. It is November and now the numbers have some weight.
Sounds like Ferentz has the 2004 defense as No. 1 in his heart. Maybe. He did bring up that group. They did lead the Hawkeyes to a Big Ten co-championship that year.
“But this group, it’s just more of a team effort. These guys work at it,” Ferentz said. “They’re really together. They prepare. And they just — all kind of know what to do and where to be, and then every now and then we’ll come up with some big plays. But it’s been spread around a little bit. It’s not just A.J. doing it all the time or whatever.”
Just for good measure, defensive end A.J. Epenesa was good all of the time anyway. Against Illinois, it was 1.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble out of the QB and three more QB hurries.
What would Epenesa try to do against Iowa’s defense?
“Honestly, I have no idea,” he said.
What do you hate to see?
“I don’t want to answer that because someone is going to watch this and they’re going to do it,” Epenesa said with a smile. “Running quarterbacks, they’re tough. If we had to play someone like Lamar Jackson right now ... He’s so good at throwing the ball, he’s a threat, you have to rush the passer. But he’s so good at running the ball. When you face versatile players like that, it’s a huge threat to try to have to contain that.”
Let’s check ... Yep, Nebraska has one of those.
In three games since returning from injury, Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez has averaged 300.6 yards of offense in the last three games, including 288 total yards in the Huskers’ 54-7 win at Maryland on Saturday. Martinez’s 582 rushing yards would lead the Hawkeyes, by the way.
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“It’s a double whammy, or a dual threat, that’s what it is,” Epenesa said. “He’s a good player. Plays hard with a lot of passion. We’re going to have to prepare hard.”
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