IOWA CITY, Iowa — You can’t stop thinking about the Rose. Jaleel Johnson? Jaleel Johnson can’t stop thinking about the thorns.
“Yeah, definitely,” Iowa’s senior defensive tackle told Landof10.com. “Coming into 2016, we definitely have a huge chip on our shoulders.
“You know, coming off a huge loss like that, that’s not really a reflection of what we do and what we are.”
Because it wasn’t. And, really, it isn’t. When last we saw the Hawkeyes’ defense at the 2016 Rose Bowl, Christian McCaffrey was running circles around it. Stanford’s all-world tailback rumbled for 172 yards on 18 carries, adding 105 yards receiving and another 91 on returns.
All of which were notable, not least of which because the Hawkeyes had given up only 11 runs all season that went for 20-plus yards, and four of those slips — 36 percent — took place in Pasadena. One bad day. One very, very, very bad day.
But toss in the 174 yards that Michigan State compiled on the ground on 46 carries in the Big Ten championship game and a narrative with legs started to make strides down the message boards:
Is the simplest way to try to solve a good Iowa defense to simply run the heck right at them?
“I think every team is going to try to get us, physically,” safety Miles Taylor noted. “But it’s just about the way we prepare. And I don’t think we prepared right for the Rose Bowl, and we’re going to clean that up.
“We prepared well for Michigan State — it just came down to the wire, and it didn’t (come) through. So we have a lot more work to do from the last two games that we played. So we’re just trying to definitely get more physical and be able to finish in the fourth quarter against Michigan State and the Rose Bowl, (be effective) from start to finish.”
They want the taste of January’s 45-16 pasting out of their collective mouths, and they’re going to take it out on everybody until it’s gone for good. Take last Saturday, and take it with two aspirin. At an open Kids Day practice under a sweltering August sun, new free safety Brandon Snyder dropped haymaker after haymaker on ball carriers, even stopping short at least once for a touch-at-the-whistle rather than knock a helpless teammate into another zip code.
“Definitely, we want to take pride in (physicality),” Taylor continued. “But that’s not the overall goal. We just want to make the plays that come to us and want to make the tackles that come, too. If it’s a big hit, then it’s a big hit. But if it’s a regular tackle, then it’s a regular tackle.”
And they all look the same in the box score, as long as you make ’em. The first half of the league slate (Wisconsin, Illinois, Northwestern, Maryland), the Hawkeyes gave up 87.5 yards per week on the ground. The second half (Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue, Nebraska), that figure nearly doubled to 158.5 yards per game.
Power-first Wisconsin went nowhere (34 carries, 86 yards) in October. But later in the year, pro-style, pound-the-rock types such as Michigan State and Stanford rambled for 174 and 206 (on 34 carries), respectively.
Fatigue? Scheme? Kismet?
“I just think maybe Stanford, they did some things that maybe we weren’t really prepared for,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure. But Stanford is just a great team overall.”
And the 310-pound Illinois native, when he’s right, is one of the Big Ten’s great pluggers. An honorable mention all-conference selection last fall after picking up four sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 44 tackles, Johnson usually cranks out the kind of production that gets you noticed:
— IowaFBLive (@IowaFBLive) July 8, 2016
Dude’s not resting on his laurels.
He’s resting on the thorns.
“As far as the running game, we play a lot of good backs this year,” Johnson said. “The thing we need, really, is confidence.
“After coming off a huge loss in our last game, I think people kind of took it as maybe we’d lost our confidence (in) stopping the run game.”
Spoiler alert: They haven’t.
“That’s not going to be the case,” Johnson said. “Our thing is just trying to get that confidence back. We’re coming out every single day doing just that.”
The swagger tank won’t take long to refuel, with reigning Thorpe Award winner Desmond King (eight picks in 2015) manning one corner slot and Greg Mabin or Josh Jackson at the other. With the aforementioned Snyder and running mate Taylor in the middle, you throw at your peril. The Hawkeyes last year ranked among the top 25 nationally in lowest opponent completion percentage (53.4, 15th) and percentage of passes intercepted (4.08, 12th).
So, yeah, if it helps you sleep at night, run it the heck right at them. Test their spine, test your luck.
“The one thing I can really say I’m proud of is we have young guys who have really bought in to what we do now,” Johnson continued. “You’ve got young guys who come up to us and just want to know — we’ll be at the hotel late at night, and you’ll get guys coming up, wanting to go over the playbook and things like that. So I think the thing I’m most proud of is that guys really want to get this thing down.”
Many hands, one heartbeat. One wall, too.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler