IOWA CITY, Iowa - It was a television broadcaster’s dream, and a Colorado State nightmare. The Rams were leading No. 5 Iowa, 14-7, with less than 9 minutes remaining in the third quarter on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Tim Brando, the play-by-play man for the FS1 telecast, sensed it was a key moment in the game. Colorado State was facing a second down and 23 from its own 6.
“This is when Iowa’s defense decides to turn you over and make some plays,” Brando said, just seconds before A’Jon Vivens fumbled the ball.
Brando didn’t miss a beat.
‘“And there it is, right on cue,” he said. “A fumble. Hawkeyes have it at the 6. It’s Jack Campbell, 31. How many times do they do this? Over and over again.”
Iowa’s offense remains a work in progress heading into Friday’s game at Maryland. But the opportunistic defense has been a huge factor in the Hawkeyes’ 4-0 start. Iowa has outscored its opponents, 51-7, in points after turnovers this season. Colorado State is responsible for the seven points, taking advantage of Spencer Petras’s only interception of the season with a second-quarter touchdown.
And there’s nothing surprising about that 51-7 advantage. It’s become as much a part of Iowa football as the Tiger Hawk logo on the helmets.
Iowa has had 70 interceptions since 2017, the most of any Power Five team. Opponents have 30 interceptions over that time. Since 2017, Iowa has outscored its opponents, 347-183, in points after turnovers. As Brando pointed out, they do it over and over again. Iowa’s defense has not had an interception the last two games, but has one in 14 of the last 17 games overall. Those 70 interceptions, which have resulted in 1,088 return yards and 10 touchdowns, didn’t happen by accident.
“First of all, most of them back there have played a lot,” said Ed Podolak, the former Iowa and Kansas Chiefs standout who works alongside Gary Dolphin on the Hawkeye Radio Network. “That comes with getting better as a squad. You know what everyone’s doing. And they’ve always got their eyes on the backfield. Because you see them ready to drive on the passes at all times. It has a lot to do with pressure up front, too. You have to have that pressure.” Defensive coordinator Phil Parker, who was Iowa’s secondary coach under Norm Parker, has his fingerprints all over the ballhawking defenders.
“For sure,” Podolak said. “He just loves football. He lives it. They’re just great cover people. They come to play every week, and they get in the right defense for the right play. And they’re going to keep getting better. We have a couple of kids who aren’t playing that are awfully good and will play next year.”
Twenty-three different Hawkeyes have accounted for those 70 interceptions. Josh Jackson and Riley Moss have accounted for eight apiece. Jackson got his eight in the 2017, including a memorable hat trick in a 55-24 upset of Ohio State. He also returned two interceptions against Wisconsin for touchdowns that season.
He was a consensus all-American after tying the school single-season interception record held by Nile Kinnick (1939), Lou King (1981) and Desmond King (2015). He was also named the Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year in the Big Ten and left early for the NFL. Iowa led the nation with 21 interceptions that season and tied a school record with four touchdowns. In addition to Jackson’s 43 and 52-yard scores, Brandon Snyder returned one 89 yards against Illinois and Amani Hooker went 30 yards against Ohio State.
Moss has two interceptions in each of the last four seasons. He returned one for a 54-yard touchdown against Michigan State last season and returned two for touchdowns of 30 and 55 yards against Indiana in the 2021 season opener.
Moss, who first committed to North Dakota State before flipping to Iowa as a senior at Ankeny Centennial, played safety in high school. Iowa projected him as a cornerback, and many people doubted he would be successful at his new position. That gave him all the motivation he needed to prove people wrong.
He played all 13 games for the Hawkeyes as a freshman, starting five times in 2018. He celebrated his first start, at Minnesota, with two interceptions. He returned one of them 36 yards to set up a touchdown. Four games later, he got beat for two touchdowns in a 38-36 loss to Purdue, but grew from the experience.
He started one game in 2019 and all eight in 2020. In addition to his touchdown against the Spartans, he returned his other pick that season 57 yards against Minnesota.He followed that up with his two interception returns for touchdowns against the Hoosiers. Moss said that Parker puts together a game plan that “puts us in the best possible position” to succeed. And it’s always a learning process. Moss got beat on two long pass plays in the third game of the season against Kent State.
“My eyes got caught in the backfield,” Moss said. “I was ready for a little three-step hitch again, like I had the first week, and they caught me on it. They were able to read my bluff. It’s about how you come back from bad plays. That’s what makes you a good player.” Asked about his team’s penchant for picks, and whether it was instinct or preparation that leads to the thievery, Moss said it’s not an easy question to answer.
“You can’t really know where the ball is going to go in the game,” he said. “Most of the plays that are scripted in practice are their favorite plays to run in the game. It just depends on if they run them or not.”
Often, there are new wrinkles to negotiate.
“When it comes to the game it’s the Wild West,” Moss said. “That’s why we practice, and try to get ready.”
Of the 23 Hawkeyes credited with interceptions since 2017, only one player was a four-star recruit. That was Julius Brents, who now plays at Kansas State. Eleven of the interceptions were made by three-star recruits and eight of them by two-star recruits.Three of them were made by Snyder, Jake Gervase and Jack Koerner, who arrived as walk-ons.
Gervase finished with seven of the 70 interceptions since 2017. Hooker, named the Big Ten’s Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year in 2018, Geno Stone and Michael Ojemudia had six each. Current senior Matt Hankins has five, two of them coming at Iowa State in the second game of the season.
They all stand as examples of Iowa’s reputation as a developmental program, a coaching staff’s keen eye for recruiting and Parker’s touch as a stellar defensive coach