Drawing the line

BY AMIE KIEHN | OCTOBER 02, 2009 7:20 AM

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Fans knew Adrian Clayborn could hit. They knew the 6-3 defensive end could break through the line. But they didn’t know the 282-pounder out of St. Louis could block a punt, scoop it up, and sprint into the endzone.

Those who watched Iowa stun Penn State in front of the Nittany Lions’ boisterous fans in Beaver Stadium witnessed up front Iowa’s paramount defensive ability.

Iowa’s defensive line has catalyzed the Hawkeyes in the run to their 4-0 record, which will become 5-0 if the Hawks defeat Arkansas State on Saturday — a first under head coach Kirk Ferentz.

Last weekend, Iowa’s front four of juniors Clayborn, Karl Klug, and Christian Ballard and sophomore Broderick Binns demonstrated to a national audience they can achieve what they have been striving for: domination.

The defensive line hasn’t always dominated this season. Against Northern Iowa and Iowa State, it struggled to stop the running game. Cyclone junior Alexander Robinson ran the ball 19 times to gain a solid 100 yards. The linemen were severely disappointed by their lackluster performance, and they resolved to become more stalwart.

“After those two games, we pretty much started picking up the tempo, saying, ‘Hey, this is what we need to do in practice,’ ” Ballard said. “We need to practice like the old D-Line, like Mitch King, Matt Kroul, and Jonathan Babineaux, who come in every day, and practice, and run to the ball. We weren’t doing that the first two games.”

The Iowa coaches adopted the motto “six seconds of hell” on every snap, which Ballard said is a pivotal motivation for the Hawkeyes. The motto sparked a fire under the defensive front, and Arizona clearly did not know what hit it inside Kinnick Stadium on Sept. 19, except for the fact that it hurt.

Toted as the nation’s second-best tailback at the time, Arizona’s Nic Grigsby came into Iowa City after rushing for 207 yards against Northern Arizona. The Iowa defense held him to 75 yards on 11 carries, but that total included one 58-yard dash when the junior cut to the left sideline in the second quarter. Iowa cornerback Amari Spievey nabbed him at the Hawkeye 1-yard line.

“Stopping the run is No. 1 on our list,” Ballard said. “We don’t want anyone getting more than 100 yards, and we did a really poor job of that in the first few games. We got together as a group and said, ‘Hey we can’t have people run the ball on us.’ We really took that to heart.”

The D-line adapted its twists and stunts, and Klug and Clayborn had sacks to help hold the Wildcats at bay in the 27-17 victory. Against Penn State, Iowa’s defense showed off its strength against a top-caliber team. The Hawkeyes forced three turnovers and blocked a punt. Senior linebacker Pat Angerer tallied 14 tackles, and the Big Ten named him Defensive Player of the Week.

The defensive front four displayed their exceptional ability to bewilder opponents by running a variety of stunts to foil the Nittany Lions’ offense and quarterback Daryll Clark, leading to Iowa’s 21-10 victory.

“I think it was just getting the offense confused,” Binns said. “You know, just staying in the pass-rush lane, not letting Daryll Clark get outside and run against us.”

Since 2008, no team has scored a rushing touchdown against the Hawkeyes in 29 consecutive quarters — 13 last season, 16 this season. The last time an opponent did was Penn State’s Derrick Williams 9-yard run in the third quarter. And Williams was a wide receiver.

“The defense goes as we go,” Binns said. “So if we can stop the run — typically, that is when our defense plays the best.”

ESPN’s “College GameDay” was on the scene in State College, and commentator Kirk Herbstreit noted that Ferentz has had his best teams when the line play has consistently been dominant.

Binns forced a fumbled in the end zone during the second quarter, resulting in a safety and significantly shifting the momentum to Iowa. Binns’ success did not end there. He consistently bull-rushed Penn State’s DeOn’tae Pannell so effectively that the offensive lineman was replaced by Nerraw McCormack.

Penn State junior Evan Royster, who rushed for a touchdown during last season’s meeting, had only 69 yards on 17 carries and a fumble.

Ferentz points to the team’s defense as the spark behind the Hawkeyes’ rise in the AP poll and into the position to have the best start in his tenure.

“Their effort the other night was phenomenal,” the coach said at his weekly press conference Tuesday. “It could have been better — that’s the good news — it could have been better. I think even the things we’re doing well in any area right now, we can still do better.”

The Hawkeyes say they know last weekend is history — and history doesn’t win any football games — and they are preparing for unranked Arkansas State by not dwelling on the victory over Penn State.

“It’s time to turn the page,” Ferentz said. “We need to move onto the next challenge, and we certainly have one coming in here Saturday.”

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