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Defense struggling to get off the field

BY MITCH SMITH | NOVEMBER 19, 2010 7:20 AM

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The images were plastered all over the television screen in the fourth quarter of Iowa's 21-17 loss to Northwestern on Nov. 13.

Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard, down on one knee on the sideline, drinking water and gasping for air.

The Wildcats had worn down the Hawkeyes' defensive unit, which was ranked eighth in the nation at the time.

Northwestern was a perfect 5-for-5 on third-down conversions in the fourth quarter. A Hawkeye penalty gave the Wildcats a sixth conversion on third down. This success allowed the squad to sustain back-to-back fourth-quarter touchdown drives of 85 and 91 yards.

Iowa's defensive struggles in the fourth quarter came to a head in the Nov. 13 loss to the Wildcats, but it isn't the first time the unit has had problems getting off the field late.

In Iowa's three losses this season, the Hawkeyes have allowed opponents to convert 9-of-13 third downs in the fourth quarter. Making a stop on one of those plays could have been the difference between winning and losing.

Wisconsin drove the ball 80 yards down the field on its game-winning touchdown series against Iowa, coverting on a pair of fourth downs to keep the drive alive. Arizona also sustained a long fourth-quarter drive — 72 yards — en route to its win over the Hawkeyes.

The struggles have been especially noticeable in the past two games. Indiana and Northwestern's unpredictable spread attacks kept the Hawkeyes guessing — the two squads combined to covert 8-of-11 third downs in the fourth quarter.

"It's definitely hard to get off the field when a lot of teams are just spreading us out," Ballard said. "We try to do what we can, but it's pretty tough, especially with a guy like Dan Persa and a guy like Ben Chappell, who can really throw it. They're really experienced quarterbacks. Any experienced quarterback knows how to move the ball … But we've got to do better."

Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor is next in line in the list of experienced quarterbacks. Pryor, like Persa, has the ability to make plays both with his arm and with his legs. The three-year starter has amassed 2,136 passing yards and 512 rushing yards this season for the No. 8 Buckeyes.

All of the Hawkeye defensive players available to the media Tuesday agreed that stopping opponents on third down has plagued the squad in recent games. What they couldn't agree on was how to remedy the situation.

Safety Tyler Sash said there really isn't any specific method to improve on the third-down struggles; it's simply a matter of executing and making plays in those crucial situations.

Ballard noted the need to collapse the pocket and make the quarterback feel uncomfortable, while fellow defensive lineman Karl Klug pointed to making stops on first down.

"Anytime you can win first down, that's going to give you a better chance to win third down," he said.

Micah Hyde contended the Hawkeyes need to take advantage of opportunities. If Hawkeyes can swing the momentum in its favor by making big plays, that will give them confidence, he said.

No matter the answer, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said the Hawkeyes need to find a way to make it happen.

"The more you get off the field on third down, the better off you're going to be," he said.


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