Dominating Defense Gives Hawkeyes A Good Feeling
EVANSTON, Ill. — Chauncey Golston couldn’t resist.
Asked when he thought Iowa’s defense could get the shutout in Saturday’s game at Northwestern, the defensive end smiled and said, “Before we even got off the bus.”
Safety Geno Stone was a little more cautious.
“We held them (scoreless) in the first half,” Stone said. “Going into the fourth quarter, we still had it. At that point, it was a matter of time. Let’s just do it.”
Not that it was a surprise, but the Hawkeyes did it.
No. 20 Iowa’s 20-0 win over Northwestern was never going to be about artistry. The day started as a cloudy, cold mess and it ended as a rainy, colder mess.
Northwestern’s offense lacked teeth, and the Hawkeyes knew that. This wasn't going to be a day when chances were taken by Iowa's offense unless absolutely necessary.
So this was going to be, as Golston said, “sticky.”
Get a lead, get on the bus, and go home to a bye week with the win.
Iowa moved to 6-2 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten with an off-week ahead that will lead into back-to-back games against Wisconsin and Minnesota that will go a long way (all wins and some help to close the season) or a short way (one loss to either) in determining the Hawkeyes’ fate in the Big Ten West Division.
“Rarely is anything easy in a conference game,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
The Hawkeyes are banged up — the latest injuries belonged to tight end Nate Wieting and offensive lineman Justin Britt, joining guard Kyler Schott, linebacker Kristian Welch and wide receiver Brandon Smith on the sidelines.
They’re still sputtering a bit on offense — they had just 12 first downs, their lowest total since the Outback Bowl against Mississippi State in January, and had 302 yards of offense, 134 in the second half.
But Iowa’s defense is thriving, and it showed during this week in practice.
“It was something crazy,” Golston said. “The tempo was great. Everybody was flying around.”
The defense pounded the Wildcats (1-6, 0-5). Northwestern had 202 yards of offense, the lowest total against an Iowa defense since the Hawkeyes held Maryland to 115 yards in a game last season.
Quarterback Aidan Smith was sacked five times, the highest total of the season for Iowa’s defense, and was hurried twice.
“Those hits on the quarterback, they really make a difference,” defensive end A.J. Epenesa said.
It was Iowa's fourth shutout in a Big Ten game in the last two seasons — no other conference team has more than one in that span.
Ferentz was comfortable enough in his defense to not press anything on offense. Not that he's Mr. Vegas, but he wasn't about to do anything especially tricky.
The Hawkeyes had fourth-and-1 on their last two possessions of the first half. They took a delay-of-game penalty before punting on the first one, and then punted again without a penalty on the second one.
The last thing Ferentz said he wanted to do was give Northwestern a short field.
“In the first half, there was nothing really to gain,” he said.
“There’s no point giving them a short field and helping them out,” quarterback Nate Stanley said. “In those situations, you’re kind of playing the field-position game.”
In the third quarter, though, Ferentz did go for it on fourth-and-8 from the Northwestern 30. Stanley threw an 11-yard pass to tight end Shaun Beyer, who got the last yards with the help of a block from wide receiver Tyrone Tracy, and that play led to Iowa’s second touchdown of the game, a 1-yard dive by Mekhi Sargent.
The game appeared over with Iowa’s 10-0 halftime lead. It was a lock at 17-0.
Iowa had more than a seven-minute edge in time of possession. Northwestern had the ball for 26 ½ minutes, and had nothing to show for it.
“When the defense is shutting teams out, that gives us energy,” wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said. “All we have to do is chip in and help them out. We hold the ball for long amounts of time, and then we put the ball in the end zone and make it difficult for the other team.”
“We want our offense, and our entire team, to be confident in our ability,” Epenesa said. “It felt good. That’s how we’re going to play.”
Iowa snapped a three-game losing streak to the Wildcats. But even his defense’s domination couldn’t ease Ferentz’s concern.
“Yes and no. Yes and no,” Ferentz said whether his team’s halftime lead felt comfortable. “It felt good, certainly better than being down 10-0. We’ve had a history here — it seems like things happen against us, unfortunately. Until we had that last five minutes, it was hard to feel good about anything, quite frankly.”
Golston said this week was about every day being a good day.
“We thought about stacking good days on top of the previous ones,” he said.
That stack built by Iowa’s defense turned into a mountain.