Ohio State football: Iowa defense presents familiar look and challenge

COLUMBUS -- The Iowa Hawkeyes are good at defense.

Again.

The Hawkeyes rank third in the country in points allowed per game (9.8), third in pass defense (154 yards per game) and seventh in total defense (265 ypg.)

How do they do it?

Pretty much the way they have always done it.

“So the structure, it’s an umbrella that’s sound and slow to back up,” said Ohio State defensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, who noted he has been going against similar Iowa defenses since the beginning of Kirk Ferentz’s time as head coach of the Hawkeyes.

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Wilson arrived in the Big Ten as an assistant to head coach Randy Walker, a Troy native, at Northwestern in 1999, the same year Ferentz took the reins in Iowa City.

Then the coordinator was Phil Parker. Now it is Norm Parker (no relation), a native of Amherst, Ohio.

The Hawkeyes still play a four-man front that invites double teams to free up the linebackers to make tackles. That has benefited linebacker Jack Campbell, who leads the Big Ten with 10.5 tackles per game, while Seth Benson is fourth with 8.5.

Lukas Van Ness leads the defensive front with six tackles for loss, including three sacks.

In the secondary, Iowa still prefers variations of zone to man coverage, and Cooper DeJean is second in the Big Ten with three interceptions and sixth with 1.3 pass break-ups per game.

“It’s easy to come down and add on the run,” Wilson said of a safety being able to get into the box quickly if necessary. “It all starts up front. When they stop the run and get you on long yardage and then their D-line’s pushing the pocket and not giving the quarterback a lot of time to throw.

“I just think it’s a credit to the scheme and not only how it’s coached but the players know it, and they got really good players. And it’s not just this year. That’s every year for the Iowa defense.”

Iowa has made one significant change over the years, and that came since the last meeting between the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes in 2017.

After famously sticking to a 4-3 nearly every snap, Iowa finally relented in 2018 and joined the majority of programs at the major college and pro levels in switching to nickel personnel as its “base” package, replacing a true linebacker with a lighter, faster player in most situations.

Overall, that did not have much impact on the style of play but rather minimized matchup problems against offenses who would attack the third linebacker with a speedy receiver.

Some defenses call that role the “Star,” but Iowa calls it the “Cash” position. DeJean, a 6-foot1, 209-pound sophomore, fills that spot this season when he isn’t playing cornerback.

“They’re by no means a bend-but-not-break defense,” Wilson said. “I mean, they’re sitting there, and they’re slow to get out of (back)pedals and breaks because they’re driving on balls.”

And according to Wilson, playing one style so much and for so long has an advantage in that it helps Parker anticipate what his opponent will try to do to beat it.

“They know how they’re gonna get worked, so they know when you’re going to attack them deep and use double moves and things you try to do and they rally great,” Wilson said.

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He also noted that Iowa defensive backs typically excel at making plays on the ball.

That could come into play Saturday with how often Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud likes to give his receivers a chance to make catches against tight coverage, a practice that has yielded some big plays and red zone touchdowns.

“They play the ball very, very well so when you do take those one-on-ones, those quote ‘50/50 balls,’ they’re sometimes not 50/50 against their guys,” Wilson said.

SATURDAY’S GAME

Iowa at Ohio State, Noon, Fox, 1410

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