There were times last season when Iowa could put the outcome of a football game on the shoulders on its defense.
For the Hawkeyes last year, playing to their strengths meant depending on the defense. The group was nearly impenetrable at times, holding eight opposing offenses to fewer than 17 points and ranking in the top 10 nationally in six defensive statistics.
The prevailing thought entering this season was that Iowa, with eight starters back from that group, would again be able to put the outcome of games on the shoulders of its defense. But the expectation was the Hawkeyes would be crediting the defense for victories rather than the defense blaming itself for defeat.
Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn said Saturday’s 31-30 loss to Wisconsin was “all on the defense.”
“That’s why we lost the game,” he said. “We’ve got to stop them in the fourth quarter and we didn’t. That’s why we lost the game.”
That’s not entirely true. The Badgers, minus three of their top playmakers on offense for most of the day, methodically moved the ball on the Hawkeyes all afternoon, and Iowa had critical breakdowns in other phases as well.
“Special teams really hurt us,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
The Hawkeyes had five glaring errors in the kicking game — a blocked extra-point, a botched field goal try, two penalties on kick coverage that ultimately cost Iowa 46 yards of field position and Iowa got fooled on a fake punt that allowed the Badgers to extend a drive that led to the game-winning touchdown.
“That stuff happens in a game,” Clayborn said. “It’s all on the defense. We need to put out the fire and we didn’t.”
Suddenly, Iowa’s Rose Bowl hopes are smoldering with fifth-ranked Michigan State (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten) coming to Kinnick Stadium. The Spartans hold a one-game lead in the conference over Ohio State and Wisconsin, while the No. 18 Hawkeyes (5-2, 2-1) are likely one defeat from being eliminated from the title talk.
“We’ve got to get the team together and change things up and just play hard, I guess,” Clayborn said. “I’m not giving up on the season, and I don’t think the team is. We’ve just got to battle back and play better.”
A month ago, the Hawkeyes were leading the country in total defense. They allowed a grand total of three points in victories against Ball State and Penn State and looked every bit as bulletproof as they were a year ago.
But Iowa has given up 59 points in its past two games. Michigan rolled up 522 yards in a 38-28 loss to the Hawkeyes.
Wisconsin punted twice Saturday. The Badgers had scoring drives of 15, 10, 12, 4 and 15 plays. Three of those drives covered 80 yards.
“They’ve got a very veteran group (on offense) — a quarterback (Scott Tolzien) that’s a fifth-year senior, excellent offensive line, good backs,” Ferentz said. “They’re going to move the football on everybody.”
Most of the time, though, the Badgers do it with receiver Nick Toon, tight end Lance Kendricks and running back James White adding to Wisconsin’s big play capabilities. Toon didn’t play Saturday, while Kendricks and White left the game in the first half with injuries and didn’t return.
Clayborn said the key Saturday was Wisconsin’s effectiveness on first down. The Badgers averaged 5.3 yards per play on 29 first-down opportunities and had one negative-yardage play. Wisconsin had one holding penalty that sidetracked one drive and Tolzien threw his only interception on the first play of another possession.
“They won almost every first down,” Clayborn said. “If they win first down, it’s hard to (play) defense because you don’t know what they’re going to do.”
Ultimately, the first-down success put the Badgers in high-percentage third-down situations. Wisconsin also converted all three of its fourth-down tries.
“It’s a team loss,” linebacker Tyler Nielsen said. “But obviously the defense needs to come up with a stop.”
Clayborn was more critical of his group. He said Iowa’s approach needs to change.
“Whatever we’re doing in practice on the players’ side is not working,” he said. “We’ve got to change things around. The coaches are giving us an opportunity to make plays, and we just aren’t.”
Asked if he was surprised by Iowa’s defensive problems during the past two weeks, Clayborn said: “I wouldn’t say it surprises me. You can kind of see how it goes during the week. Some guys don’t practice hard, and that’s what happens.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football