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Red means go for Hawkeye defense

BY SETH ROBERTS | OCTOBER 20, 2011 7:20 AM

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Iowa has followed the same defensive philosophy for years.

Bend, but don't break.

In other words, the Hawkeyes can give up many yards, as long as they ultimately keep opponents out of the end zone as much as possible.

That philosophy has worked; from 2007-10, the lowest Iowa has ranked in national scoring defense was No. 12.

And while the defense as a whole seems to be breaking more than bending this season — the Hawkeyes are No. 43 in scoring defense, No. 64 in yards conceded, and No. 111 in third-down defense — there has been one area in which the Black and Gold have held steady.

Iowa is among the best teams in the country when backed up inside its own 20-yard line. Opponents are scoring on just under 70 percent of their red-zone opportunities, which ties Norm Parker's unit with Wisconsin as the 10th-best in the country.

"[There's] more of a sense of urgency, trying to keep them out," cornerback Micah Hyde said. "You have to buckle down, you have to try your best."

But Hyde said he couldn't think of any particular reason why Iowa has been so much more successful in that 20-yard strip of turf than anywhere else on the field.

"Maybe it's because of the shortened field, or less opportunity for the offense to make plays — I don't know," he said. "It's just our defense coming together as a whole and knowing we can't give up a touchdown."

Hyde and the Hawkeyes did a pretty good job of coming together against Northwestern last week. Led by quarterback Dan Persa, the Wildcats ran roughshod all over Iowa; Persa was 31-of-40 for 246 yards, and Northwestern ran 92 plays for 495 total yards.

But the Hawkeyes said they kicked up the pressure once the 'Cats passed the 20-yard line.

The result? A 98-yard pick-6 created when Persa was hammered by Broderick Binns and Steve Bigach, and a punt forced when a tackle for loss, a sack, and a false start penalty drove the Wildcats from the Iowa 18 back to the Iowa 34.

Cornerback Shaun Prater said he was especially proud of the way his teammates played on Tanner Miller's long interception return, because Northwestern almost never turns the ball over. The Wildcats had thrown two interceptions and lost two fumbles in five games before visiting Kinnick Stadium; by the time they were ready to leave Iowa City, they had added a tally to each column.

"Everyone played his job and technique well," Prater said. "Northwestern never has turnovers, so we had to force them to force throws. Persa, he usually smart about the passes he throws; we're trying to pressure him, knock him down a couple times to force him to do something wrong."

Persa's uncharacteristic mistakes — he was responsible for the fumble as well as the interception — helped Iowa hold the 'Cats to 3-of-5 red-zone conversions. That 60 percent success rate is on par with Oklahoma, the No. 1 red-zone defense — and No. 3 overall team — in the nation; the Sooners are holding opponents to 58 percent scoring inside the 20.

Iowa isn't going to rest on its laurels, though. Bigach said the team has to improve on all facets of the defense, both in and out of the red zone. The sense of urgency that comes with having his back against the wall, he said, must carry over to the 30-yard line, the 50-yard line, and the other red zone entirely.

"You have to play each play hard; whether it's in the red zone or whether it's on their own 1-yard line, it's another snap of football, and you have to play hard," he said. "You have to play every snap with that sense of urgency. If you do that, you become a great defense."


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