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Iowa defense relies on 'Next Men In'

BY JORDAN GARRETSON | OCTOBER 18, 2011 7:20 AM

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The Iowa defense is a little beaten up right now.

Middle linebacker James Morris, the only Big Ten player averaging better than 10 tackles a game, is nursing a sprained ankle. Tackle Tom Nardo, the conference's defensive Player of the Week after a 12-tackle performance against Louisiana-Monroe, has an undisclosed knee injury. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who owns the most tackles (19) by any Hawkeye nonstarter, is also working through a knee problem.

All three missed Oct. 15's game against Northwestern. It was the second-straight absence for Hitchens, who also sat out the previous week at Penn State.

Two starters and another key contributor gone? No problem.

Juniors Steve Bigach and Tom Donatell registered their first career starts at tackle and outside linebacker, respectively. Tyler Nielsen shifted to Morris' middle position and true freshman linebacker Quinton Alston played in relief.

"I thought all of our guys had a good attitude," coach Kirk Ferentz said. "And nobody is sitting around getting ready to make excuses, they're just trying to play and get the job done."

Bigach tallied a sack and recovered a fourth-quarter fumble. Donatell recorded seven tackles, while Nielsen had a career-high 12. Alston added three stops.

"They came in, and they did what they were supposed to do — Next Man In," safety Jordan Bernstine said. "Our defense — it doesn't matter who's out there — we just have to execute and play as one."

Iowa was not far removed from dealing with another name on the infirmary report. Sophomore corner B.J. Lowery played his first game of the season after suffering a wrist injury during August training camp.

Lowery is still sporting a protective wrap on his left wrist, but he said he "felt good" after posting two tackles in the Northwestern game.

The more precarious linebacking situation — Nielsen hasn't been 100 percent for most of the season, either, dealing with foot and ankle injuries — is a little too reminiscent of 2010 for Ferentz's taste.

Linebackers Nielsen, Bruce Davis, Jeremiha Hunter, and Jeff Tarpinian all fell victim to injuries at times last season.

This year, the attrition started even before Iowa opened the season. Sophomore Shane DiBona ruptured his Achilles tendon during training camp.

"We don't have a lot of options, we're a bit thin at that position," Ferentz said. "It's a bit like last year. It's the way it goes."

But Morris emerged as a contingency plan last year, totaling 70 tackles as a true freshman, and Alston has a similar opportunity to do so this season. 

"He's in the army now, too," Ferentz said of Alston, who hails from the same town (Sicklerville, N.J.) as former running back Shonn Greene. "He's got a great, unbelievably positive attitude. He learns, listens, and pays attention. He's got a good future because he thinks like a football player."

Ferentz's latest prognosis for Hitchens wasn't particularly encouraging. He said Hitchens still wasn't "full-speed" last week, but he hopes he would be this week.

The 13th-year coach said he thinks Nardo and Morris "have a shot" to play Saturday against Indiana. Both were listed as starters in Iowa's two-deeps released Monday.

"We'll probably know more Tuesday, Wednesday," Ferentz said. "They both made really good progress [last] week. They really didn't get to practice a lot. They go in a game without practice and someone falls on them, you're right back to step one."


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