Iowa defense returns to form against Illinois


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CHAMPAIGN, Illinois — The Hawkeye defense has had moments of brilliance this season to go along with their share of hard lessons — mostly against teams that rush toward the edge, where open-field tackling and pursuit angles decide the winner.

Illinois had all the makings of one of these teams. It threw the ball well, had offensive playmakers, and had starting quarterback Wes Lunt back behind center.

But despite all signs pointing toward Illinois having its way with Iowa’s defense, Nov. 15 instead proved to be another moment of brilliance for the Hawkeyes during a 30-14 win.         

“Last week, we didn’t look like a good football team and we were playing a very good football team. That’s just a bad combination, so hopefully, we’re back,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said after the game. “At least we took a step forward.”

Trying to predict Iowa’s defensive performance each week is not an easy task.

It started the season as the strength of the team. But following the win over Indiana on Oct. 11, Iowa’s defense has been as inconsistent as the team itself.

In the last four weeks, Iowa has allowed 38, 7, 51, and 14 points. Further, the Hawkeyes allowed 418, 180, 429, and 235 yards in those same four games.

“I feel like it says a lot about our resiliency,” linebacker Quinton Alston said. “Regardless of if we get hit in the face — like we did against Minnesota — we’ll get back up.

“We talk about that each and every day. Coach Phil Parker says, ‘If you get punched in the face, you better get up and start swinging again, cause they’re not going to let up on you.’ ”

Against Illinois, Iowa’s defense swung back with gusto.

It forced six three-and-outs, allowed just two drives of double-digit number of plays, and forced Illinois into seven drives of two minutes or fewer.

In all, Iowa allowed just 235 total yards to an Illinois team that now averages 360.2 yards per game. That total could have been a lot lower had Iowa not given up 89 yards during what amounted to garbage time.

“It just comes back down to the basics, the fundamentals that we did day one in camp,” Alston said. “We just went back the fundamentals, the basic drills, and everything that makes Iowa great historically. We just came out and executed.”

Whereas Minnesota often started its drives against Iowa with a short field, Illinois started with plenty of field in front of them.

Excluding quarterback Jake Rudock’s fumble in the first quarter, which gave Illinois the ball on Iowa’s 34-yard line, the Fighting Illini’s best starting field position was their own 29.

But at the heart of the success that Iowa enjoyed against Illinois was its ability to keep the Fighting Illini between the hash marks.

To prepare for Illinois, Iowa involved more open field tackling drills during its week of preparation.

“Coach Parker always talk to us about tackling the ball in the doorway instead of letting them get into the room,” safety John Lowdermilk said.

After the game, wherein Lowdermilk made numerous plays against the run, he was asked whether there was any chance the team was going to allow a jet sweep to run free.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “We were well prepared for that today and we got off our blocks. We played really well.”

Follow @JacobSheyko on Twitter for updates, news, and analysis about the Iowa football team.

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