East Lansing, Mich. – Half way through the regular season and the Iowa football team is in first place in the Big Ten thanks largely to its defense.
That’s a sentence I never expected to write after six regular-season games, or at any time during this season for that matter.
The Iowa defense was considered suspect at best when the season started, but now it’s hard to imagine Iowa winning any games without the defense and the right leg of kicker Mike Meyer helping to lead the way.
There is no way the Hawkeyes could’ve prevailed 19-16 against Michigan State in double-overtime on Saturday without the defense keeping them within striking distance on this rain-soaked afternoon.
It looked like the performance would go to waste until the sputtering Iowa offense behind finally began to click late in the fourth quarter behind workhorse running back Mark Weisman. He scored on a 5-yard run with 55 seconds left in regulation to force overtime.
“They were the only reason we were in the game at all,” Weisman said of the defense. “So give them more credit than anybody out there.”
You might want to hold that praise because this Iowa defense seems to do better with a chip on its shoulder. Tell them what they can’t do and they’ll do everything within their power to do it.
“Coming into (the season) nobody gave us any credit and we were a bunch of unknown names,” said senior defensive end Joe Gaglione said. “I think we’re starting to establish a name for ourselves.
“And that was one of our goals coming in. We’re playing with a chip on our shoulder and we’ve got to keep doing that.”
Two of Iowa’s unknown defenders helped secure the victory, starting with sophomore defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat tipping a pass in double-overtime. Senior cornerback Greg Castillo, who was playing for the injured B.J. Lowery at cornerback, caught the deflection to seal Ferentz’s 100th victory as the Iowa head coach.
“It’s probably appropriate that an unsung guy was really the trigger guy there with Louie Trinca-Pasat getting his hand on the ball,” Ferentz said. “It’s kind of a fitting way because he’s really been working hard.”
Another goal for the Iowa defenders was to give first-year defensive coordinator Phil Parker a victory against his alma mater. Parker played defensive back at Michigan State and played it quite well, earning first-team all-Big Ten honors in 1983, 1984 and 1985.
Parker was known as a tough and tenacious defender, and that’s how his defense played Saturday.
“Coach Parker was really emotional before the game,” said Gaglione, who finished with 11 tackles Saturday. “It was great to get a win for him because I would rather play for no other coach than coach Parker.
“He’s a great guy and he puts us in a great position to make plays.”
Being in position to make plays is one thing. Making plays is another. The Iowa defense excelled in both areas Saturday.
It helped that Michigan State’s passing attack looked inept at times, but there was a reason for that besides quarterback Andrew Maxwell doing his best Jake Christensen impersonation.
Iowa bent at times on defense, but still only surrendered one touchdown against a team that many had pegged as the preseason favorite to win the Legends Division. The touchdown came after Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg threw an interception on the opening series of the game deep in his own territory.
Maxwell passed for 179 yards, but 75 yards came on two completions. He also only completed 12 of his 31 passes.
“I think they’re growing,” Ferentz said of his defense. “They played extremely hard today.
“It seems like we gave up a pass in each direction. But outside of that, I thought they really competed.”
Gaglione said the turning point for the Iowa defense came on Sept. 22 when he and his cohorts allowed almost 400 yards during a 32-31 loss to lowly Central Michigan at Kinnick Stadium. They were embarrassed by their performance, but also determined to make sure something like that didn’t happen again.
“I think that was really a key moment for us,” Gaglione said. “I know personally as a defensive lineman and as a defense we just wanted to establish ourselves as one of the best in the Big Ten. And I think we’re doing that right now.”
Michigan State already has established itself as one of the top defenses in the Big Ten, although, both units looked pretty equal on Saturday.
Junior linebacker Anthony Hitchens continued his role as a tackling machine by collecting 15 more on Saturday. He also drew inspiration from trying to make his coordinator proud.
“He loves us and he’s really proud of how we improved today,” Hitchens said of Parker.
Parker should also be proud of how focused his defenders were on Saturday’s game and nothing else. That was obvious when Morris was asked about Iowa’s current place in the Big Ten standings.
“We’re not worried about the records,” Morris said. “We’re just worried about us and right now getting healthy and getting ready for… is it Northwestern?
Iowa’s next opponent is actually Penn State, who has a pretty good defense of its own. My advice would be to take the under on next Saturday’s game.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football