IOWA CITY, Iowa — Questions lingered throughout September about Iowa’s run defense, and even coach Kirk Ferentz appeared stumped.
At times the line play looked passive. Linebackers got caught in the wash. Tackling on the back end was inconsistent. Entering its game against Minnesota two weeks ago, Iowa had given up nearly 183 rushing yards per game, the program’s worst number since 2000.
Then the run defense of old re-emerged in wins against the Gophers and Purdue, holding the teams to a combined 148 yards. Saturday’s game against Wisconsin provided the Iowa defense with its toughest test this season. While it aced 90 percent of its mid-term exam, it was a pass-fail course. The Hawkeyes (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) needed at least 95 percent in order to pass.
In a 17-9 loss to the Badgers, the several fantastic defensive plays melt away under the scrutiny of defeat. Defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson produced consecutive sacks that will have every NFL scouting department craving for his services next spring. But those plays became footnotes because the Hawkeyes missed way too many tackles.
“We knew it was going to be a physical game coming in here,” middle linebacker Josey Jewell said. “We just need to keep getting better, keep on coming off the ball.
“There was a lot of missed tackles out there today, linebackers, including me.”
Jewell normally is as sturdy as they come, one of the best tacklers of the Ferentz era. But with less than four minutes to go on the game’s most decisive play, Jewell was left wiping rubber filament from his uniform. On third-and-1 from the Badgers’ 29, running back Corey Clement bounced wide left after the Hawkeyes clogged all the lanes along the line of scrimmage. Jewell met Clement at the 27, but Clement’s powerful stiff arm shoved Jewell to the FieldTurf. Clement then raced 34 yards up the left sideline for a first down. That run led to a field goal and boosted Wisconsin’s lead to 11 points.
But blaming Jewell for the day’s defensive problems wouldn’t be appropriate, considering he led both teams with 16 tackles. He also forced a fumble, broke up a pass and recorded a quarterback hurry. There were other big plays that the Hawkeyes failed to corral that led to Wisconsin scoring. In a zero-sum game like this one, those plays burned Iowa the most.
Early in the second quarter, Wisconsin faced second-and-8 at the Iowa 17. Quarterback Bart Houston rolled slightly left, then fired across the middle to tight end Troy Fumagalli. Iowa strong safety Miles Taylor met Fumagalli at the 9-yard line but failed to wrap him up, which allowed the tight end to bounce off him like a pinball. Fumagalli then dragged two other Iowa defenders from inside the 5 and crossed the goal line for the game’s first touchdown.
Sure-tackling cornerback Desmond King wasn’t immune, either. King covered a simple crossing route by Wisconsin tight end Kyle Penniston. Houston fired to Penniston and King swiped at the ball but didn’t secure the tackle. Penniston raced 54 yards to the Iowa 5. Three plays later King atoned for his mistake by recovering a fumble in the end zone caused by Jewell. King entered the day with only six missed tackles in his last 167 attempts, according to Pro Football Focus.
Wisconsin’s inability to score on two first-quarter drives provided scent-free deodorant for a pair of whiffs by free safety Brandon Snyder. Although he has shown he can bring thunder with hard hits, Snyder continues to struggle tackling opponents in the open field.
“We gave up big plays in the back end, and that’s on us,” King said. “We’ve got to take ownership of it.”
“We played hard on defense, but there’s still some things that we can do better there,” Ferentz said. “We missed too many tackles (Saturday). Just things we can do to make it a little bit harder on our opponent. They’re small things, but they really add up in significant ways, if you can do it well enough.”
Iowa’s offense was by far the biggest culprit in Saturday’s loss. It spilled red ink all day, and the defense had to keep making deposits. But, in the end, a few too many bounced defensive checks prevented the Hawkeyes from keeping an event ledger at the scoreboard teller.