Hawkeye Defense Looks To Shut Down Ball State Ground Attack

By Marc Morehouse, The Gazette

IOWA CITY — They knew a salty film session was on tap Sunday morning.

There were curse words in the Hawkeyes’ defensive video study after Iowa held off Northern Iowa. It’s going to get blue when the defense allows seven plays of 20-plus yards (the most Iowa allowed in 2013 was five against Northern Illinois and Michigan State). There also were three plays of 50-plus yards, all short passes that UNI running back David Johnson turned into long gains, including a 70-yard TD that pulled the Panthers to 24-20 in the third quarter.

The Panthers finished with 405 yards of offense, the most against the Hawkeyes (1-0), who face 1-0 Ball State at Kinnick Saturday, since Ohio State piled up 495 last season in Columbus. Those three pass plays to Johnson generated 183 total yards.

“It was probably the most displeasing part about the ballgame, giving up big plays, particularly in the passing game,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said, “and if we’re going to have a good defensive ballclub, we’re going to have to eliminate those things, and that’s a team thing.”

The cusses came from defensive coordinator Phil Parker.

“How colorful does it get?” strong safety John Lowdermilk asked. “Rated X, maybe. No, no, probably R. He’s a great coach. There are things you can always improve on and it’s never good enough. It’s just how it is being a football player. It’s never good enough, you can never improve enough. That’s just the way he coaches.”

The cusses came from linebacker Quinton Alston, who was locked up with Johnson for a 60-yarder and the 70-yard TD.

“I’m my biggest critic, regardless of whether it’s a good day or a bad day,” Alston said. “I’m always cursing stuff in there.”

OK, enough about the histrionics. Iowa defenders spoke Saturday about communication breakdowns. What does that mean specifically?

For Alston, it was knowing how long to cover a running back who jumps into a pass pattern.

“I have to get more depth to help out the safeties a little bit more,” the senior said. “It’s carrying [the running back] a certain amount of yards and then the safety taking over. It’s stuff that’s easily correctable, so we just got in the film room. You talk and you call and you text each other. It’s easily correctable stuff.”

That was exactly the point Ferentz started to hit on before his thought trailed off. “You know, any time you have something like that, that involves someone on the front end and also the secondary end . . . it’s something we’ll continue to work on,” he said.

So, what does it mean for the safeties.

After the game, free safety Jordan Lomax discussed the approach to the formation that UNI showed on the big plays. Both safeties lined up outside the hashmarks to cover outside receivers. UNI’s motion on those plays also threw Iowa’s defense a curve. Motion can change a defensive call in a split second, and that has to be communicated in less than a split second.

“We made some adjustments in coverages,” Lowdermilk said. “A lot of it is experience. A lot of teams haven’t really done that to us before. They kind of exposed us there. Teams will probably try to do it to us the rest of the year, it’s a matter of us adjusting to it and knowing what’s coming.”

The in-game communication process for the defense of course involves Alston, the middle linebacker, and Lomax, the free safety. It certainly doesn’t stop with them.

“For the defensive line, we might have a mike linebacker [middle] outside of the box and he’s communicating,” defensive tackle Carl Davis said. “It’s our job to echo the calls and make sure we get them. There were a couple of times we didn’t get calls. Everybody has to communicate, we understand that now. Luckily, we got the ‘W’ with the communication errors, but we know we have to clean that up going into the next game.”

When they can, the defenders communicate verbally. As you can imagine, that’s not always possible on the field where it can get kind of noisy.

“We have to be more consistent with our signals,” Alston said. “During practice, you can hear everybody. When you have 75,000 people out there screaming, you have to get those signals right so everybody is on the same page.”

Adding to the degree of difficulty for the Hawkeyes in their opener was the fact that it was Alston’s first start since 2012, linebackers Reggie Spearman and Bo Bower’s first starts and Lomax’s first start at free safety.

That’s why no one is pulling the plug and cranking on the emergency break. Ferentz believes the correct personnel are in place.

“What you worry about is if you don’t have the right guys out there, but I think we have good players,” Ferentz said, “and I think it’s just a matter of us getting better, and we need to do that in a lot of positions, not just in that segment.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@sourcemedia.net

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