Without ejected linebacker Josey Jewell, Iowa run defense appears pedestrian
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Halfway through Iowa’s 45-21 win against Miami of Ohio, coach Kirk Ferentz lamented to a radio broadcaster about his team’s struggles defending the run.
The Hawkeyes had given up 61 rushing yards on 19 carries and held a comfortable 28-7 halftime lead. At that point, one could dismiss Ferentz’s worries as a head coach who demands perfection from his team.
By the game’s end, Ferentz’s concerns were legitimate.
Miami rushed for 158 yards on 41 carries, nearly all against the first-team defense. The RedHawks put together three massive scoring drives, all consisting of at least 12 plays, traveling at least 74 yards and lasting around 7 minutes. En route to a Big Ten West division title in 2015, Iowa allowed just 121.4 yards a game.
The defense’s performance muted the usual postgame enthusiasm associated with an opening-day victory. Ferentz called it “frustrating for everybody.”
“I don’t think it’s any more demoralizing than when you take the ball 75 yards,” Ferentz said. “I think all three (touchdown drives) were. And, to me, the biggest ingredient there is we’ve got to do a better job against the run. When people can move the ball on the ground, that’s a little bit demoralizing, I think.
“It’s kind of ironic in a couple areas. First of all, we have a hard time running the ball, us against our own defense. So I’m trying to equate that a little bit. But it looked a little bit like we were overthinking – maybe we were overthinking – we weren’t as aggressive as a result of that, playing the run. But we’re going to have to do a better job there.”
Iowa losing middle linebacker Josey Jewell in the first series was a major factor in its defensive performance. Jewell, a second-team all-Big Ten performer and the team’s unquestioned defensive leader, was ejected for targeting after a vicious hit on a punt return. That pushed untested true sophomore Jack Hockaday into service, and the defense appeared out of position all day.
“It sucks that Josey was out, but next man in,” Iowa weakside linebacker Bo Bower said. “Whoever comes in has to be ready to play, and play to a high level. We expect that from everybody.”
Bower said the team rallied around Hockaday and there was plenty of instruction and critique throughout the game for all players.
Iowa also absorbed the early loss of defensive end Parker Hesse, who suffered a left hamstring strain. His status is unclear for next week’s game against Iowa State in Iowa City (7:30 .m. EST, Big Ten Network).
There were some positives that Iowa can build upon. The defense forced three turnovers that led to 21 points. Freshman defensive end Anthony Nelson finished with 2.5 sacks and forced two fumbles. Even getting Hockaday in for most of the game will help build depth.
“We have a lot of those today, where next man is in,” Ferentz said. “Parker had to come out of the ballgame, so those things are going to happen during the course of the season. Guys have to respond. It was a great experience for Jack; I think he did a lot of really good things, had some good hits. Certainly caused a turnover. And he’s a guy we’ve really liked since the day he got here. He’s a really conscientious young guy and this experience will really help him, I think.”
“The most important thing is we came out with a win,” Iowa cornerback Desmond King said. “But, again, it was an ugly win. We felt like we have a lot of things to work on, on the defensive side that hurt us miscommunications, too many big plays. The opponent worked on it and they capitalized on their advantage.”