IOWA CITY, Iowa — Early-week concern churned to game-day confidence for the Iowa defense Saturday.
A week removed from an embarrassing performance against Northwestern, the Hawkeyes (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) produced their best defensive effort this season in a 14-7 win at Minnesota.
The Gophers entered the game averaging nearly 230 yards on the ground. Over five games Iowa gave up nearly 183 yards rushing per game, the program’s worst such run since 2000.
The right tonic for the defense to clip those numbers around was high intensity and attention to detail. Safety Miles Taylor ignited the defense in practice with inspirational rhetoric. The defenders attacked their offensive counterparts in preparation, and their teammates noticed.
“They had a big sense of urgency,” Iowa offensive tackle Boone Myers said. “They were flying around. They were always hoopin’ and hollering, getting excited and playing Iowa football. It was good to see them come out today and actually just dominate a game like that.”
Against the Gophers, the defense forced eight three-and-out possessions and produced three turnovers. Minnesota didn’t complete a pass until 4 minutes, 15 seconds were left until halftime. It was Iowa’s best effort this season, and five defensive plays made the most difference against the Gophers.
First stop an exhale
Minnesota faced second-and-10 at its 26 just 10 seconds into the game. The Gophers overloaded their right side with a tight end covered up by the split end plus a slot receiver. A second tight end, Colton Beebe, was parked as an H-back to the left. Quarterback Mitch Leidner lined up in the pistol formation with running back Kobe McCrary behind Leidner.
On the snap, the Gophers attacked Iowa’s 4-3 base defense with man-on-man blocking. Beebe pulled to his right and led McCrary into the hole. Iowa DE Matt Nelson engaged RT Jonah Pirsig while Iowa DT Jaleel Johnson hit center Tyler Moore at the snap. Both Nelson and Johnson shed their blocks and joined MLB Josey Jewell to converge on McCrary for a 2-yard gain.
It was a tone-setting play in a physical game that gave the defense confidence.
“We knew that it was going to be a fistfight,” Iowa CB Greg Mabin said.
Stopping a threat
After holding the Gophers to only 43 yards of offense on their first 11 plays, Iowa’s defense met its first real adversity with 1:53 left in the second quarter. Minnesota moved the ball 50 yards in 11 plays but faced third-and-12 at the Hawkeyes’ 47.
With two receivers to the right, and a tight end and wide receiver to his left, Leidner lined up in the shotgun. Iowa countered with a nickel coverage. Cornerback Desmond King moved to the slot and true freshman Manny Rugamba lined up head on receiver Drew Wolitarsky on Leidner’s left side. Both safeties were high in zone coverage, while Iowa’s cornerbacks were in man.
Wolitarsky tried to shake Rugamba off the line of scrimmage then awkwardly cut toward the middle on a slant. Rugamba never let Wolitarsky separate and undercut the route just as Leidner released the ball. Rugamba intercepted the pass, and Iowa preserved its 3-0 lead.
“Rugamba is able to stay tight and sometimes if you press off, you just can’t get that space,” ESPN2 color analyst Anthony Becht told viewers. “It really isn’t an open route, a bad choice, poor decision by Mitch Leidner to throw that route.”
“(Rugamba) understands now what it takes to make a good play for our defense,” King said “We’ve got to keep him humble about it.”
Minnesota led 7-6 late in the third quarter and drove to the Iowa 41. Facing third-and-3, the Gophers lined up three receivers to the left, including two on the line of scrimmage, and a tight end a yard off the line outside the right tackle. Leidner was in a pistol with running back Shannon Brooks behind him.
Both Johnson and fellow defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie dominated the interior on the snap. Johnson split the ‘A’ gap inside Moore and right guard Vincent Calhoun. Johnson was in the backfield before Brooks even took the handoff. With Johnson to his left, Brooks couldn’t follow the blocking pattern and cut right. Unblocked weak side linebacker Bo Bower knifed untouched to collapse on Brooks at the 42. Defensive end Parker Hesse finished the tackle for no gain.
Every member of Iowa’s front seven won their individual match-ups on that play.
“We didn’t control the line of scrimmage,” Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys said. “It’s simple. This game is a pretty simple game. We got whipped up front.”
“We just came downhill, we played on our toes today and we were just better against the run,” Iowa safety Brandon Snyder said.
Setting up the jab
Still holding a 7-6 lead, the Gophers faced third-and-16 at their 15-yard line with 6:11 remaining. With on receiver to the left and two on his right — plus a tight end — Leidner dropped back in a pistol formation.
Iowa featured a nickel formation. Linebackers Ben Niemann and Jewell hovered near the line of scrimmage at the snap. Leidner rolled right and was chased by Iowa DE Anthony Nelson, who split a double team of tackle Garrison Wright and tight end Nate Wozniak. Leidner threw off balance and completed a 9-yard comeback route to Wolitarsky, the only positive completion on King all day.
“I always expect the ball to be thrown my way,” King said. “I’m alert and ready for anything coming my way.”
Still needing 7 yards for a first down, the Gophers punted for 30 yards. The Hawkeyes scored on the very next play to take a 14-7 lead.
In desperation mode, Minnesota stormed from its 12 to the Iowa 18 in 38 seconds. Facing fourth-and-15 with no timeouts and less than 50 seconds remaining, the Gophers lined up Leidner in the shotgun with two receivers and a tight end to his right and a split end to his left. Iowa had six defensive backs with four locked in man coverage and two safeties deep. Wolitarsky moved in motion from Leidner’s right, which left receiver Brian Smith lined up one-on-one with Mabin.
Smith raced downfield, took one hard step inside, then cut right and angled toward the corner. Mabin kept inside leverage on Smith, the two of them jostling for position near the goal line and into the end zone. Leidner threw the ball inside, and Smith tried to battle through Mabin to find the ball. Mabin kept his position and the ball fell incomplete.
“Credit to Greg. He did what he had to do,” King said. “He played great coverage on it. They had to go for a touchdown so it was going to be a jump ball. They only had one way to score, and Greg did a great job on it.”
“Once I saw (Wolitarsky) go in motion and go to the other side of field and they had me one-on-one, I knew the ball was coming my way,” Mabin said. “I just tried to stand my ground and we’re in the red zone so I tried to play underneath. He made a cut underneath and he broke to the pylon so I knew the ball had to coming out soon. I just had to read the receiver’s eyes and make a play on the ball.”
Iowa’s offense took over at its 18, took a knee and won 14-7.