IOWA CITY, Iowa — Fueled by embarrassment and a modicum of insecurity, Iowa’s defense wanted to prove it wasn’t the turnstile it showed at Penn State a week earlier.
The Hawkeyes gave up nearly 600 yards in that blowout loss on Nov. 5. Even worse, the defense surrendered 359 rushing yards that day. The defenders felt that performance gave fans a reason to abandon them. Saturday against Michigan, the Hawkeyes had another chance to win back fans’ approval. They did just that in a 14-13 upset of the then-No. 3 Wolverines.
“We felt like no one was really pulling for us. I don’t really blame them,” Iowa defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie said. “They had really no reason to after last week’s performance and how we’d been playing all year. But I think within the team we knew that we were capable of competing, and it was just a matter of going out there and finally doing it for once.”
“I know for a fact people counted us out,” Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson said. “That loss to Penn State, people were like ‘Iowa-Michigan, it’s not even going to be a game.’ We were underdogs. We were going to be down three touchdowns, that’s what they said.”
Against Michigan (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten), Iowa’s defense put it all together. The Hawkeyes (6-4, 4-3) allowed 98 rushing yards and 103 through the air. They kept the high-powered Wolverines off the field, allowing just 5 of 15 third-down conversions. Iowa limited Michigan to just 27:15 in time of possession, more than six minutes below the Wolverines’ standard.
Juxtaposed against the second-worst statistical performance of the Kirk Ferentz era, the defense’s 201 yards allowed ranks as one of the best. Certainly the greatest one-week turnaround in Iowa defensive history. It was the fewest yards allowed by Iowa since Oct. 17, 2015 at Northwestern. But the 2015 Wildcats’ offense couldn’t scratch the 2016 Wolverines’ prowess.
Michigan averaged 47.8 points and 497.4 yards a game coming into Kinnick Stadium. The Wolverines scored at least 41 points on seven of nine opponents and more than 50 on four of them.
So how did the Hawkeyes slow down the Michigan machine? By applying fundamentals. Self-correcting. Perfecting techniques. By doing all the same things that escaped them on nearly every play at Penn State. Middle linebacker Josey Jewell said the team rewatched the Penn State video but viewed “mostly the bad plays.” An overarching element became clear to every Iowa defender in that blowout.
“One big thing we had was just do your job and have trust in everybody else,” Jewell said. “That was one things we tried to focus on, just doing your job.”
Sound easy? Well it isn’t. The minor mistakes at Penn State were amplified by players up front getting out of position. To cover those mistakes, the second- and third-level defenders applied too much freelance play. The Nittany Lions found Iowa’s weaknesses and attacked. The frustration built and spilled over four quarters.
Ekakitie was one of the worst offenders. Pro Football Focus graded him 278 out of 278 at his position. Saturday against Michigan, Ekakitie had four tackles, including two for loss. The defensive line dominated Michigan’s front wall, and that allowed Iowa’s linebackers and safeties to rally to the football.
“When we don’t perform to the level that we know we can play at, it eats at us too,” Ekakitie said. “It’s literally me not being in my gap for a second longer or a linebacker taking a wrong step. It’s such little things, (but) it makes a big difference. It does eat at you.
“I’d say I’ve never doubted myself, not only my ability but our ability to compete at the highest level. When we go against a team that’s as talented as they are, to the public eye it may seem that we shouldn’t be on the same playing field. We put in the same amount of time they put in every week, we put on our pants one leg at a time. I feel like we can compete with anyone.”
Nobody dominated the game like Johnson, who finished with a team-high nine tackles. He recorded a safety when he tackled Michigan running back De’Veon Smith in the end zone. He also sacked Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight for an 8-yard loss. The Hawkeyes totaled eight tackles for loss and two sacks. Michigan had allowed just 12 sacks all year.
“It was a lot of credit to the D-line,” Jewell said. “They came to play (Saturday). They made it easy on us in the back end to see the gaps. They got a lot of penetration.
“Everybody is sick of losing those tight games. Penn State was huge, a big loss. Everybody is sick of it, and guys were eager to get out there again and give it their all and give it 100 percent and just focus on their job.”
A simple approach led to a major achievement. What a novel concept.