TAMPA, Fla. — The defensive secondary that once made Iowa fans squeamish is now a symbol of progress.
Tanner Miller is the senior leader for a group of safeties and cornerbacks who recovered from a shaky start to emerge as a solidified unit.
“Communication is probably the biggest thing out there,” Miller said. “These last few weeks we just really wanted to pay attention to details as much as we could.”
In the first three games, the Hawkeyes gave up 10 pass plays of 20 or more yards. In the final six, they allowed a total of nine.
“We just took it upon ourselves to really eliminate those things,” said Miller, a safety. “We felt like we owe it to the whole team to make sure those things didn’t happen.”
They succeeded against Big Ten Conference foes, but face a potential pitfall at the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl against Louisiana State.
The 14th-ranked Tigers feature talented pass catchers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, juniors who each have posted more than 1,000 receiving yards. If they both decide to leave after the season, many 2014 NFL Draft projections have them being selected by the end of third round.
“They’re both very, very good,” said Phil Parker, Iowa’s defensive coordinator. “I think they’re probably the most explosive receivers that I’ve seen in a long time.”
That could be bad news considering the Hawkeyes’ reputation for spotty pass coverage.
But this is not the same secondary that was picked apart by Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch on Aug. 31.
Lynch threw for 275 yards and three touchdowns, including pass plays that gained 40, 21, 27 and 33 yards.
“They improved and they get better as they go,” said Parker, who also serves as defensive backs coach. “That’s what our team is about, keep on improving all the way through the end of the year.”
Parker’s prized pupil may be freshman cornerback Desmond King, who was thrust into a starting role Sept. 7 against Missouri State in the Hawkeyes’ second game.
King, a Detroit native, has 63 tackles and seven pass breakups.
“Every week it’s something new for him,” Parker said. “Going out there and playing the corner position in the Big Ten, coming out of high school, everything that was getting thrown at him was something maybe he hasn’t seen in the past.”
Miller and fellow senior B.J. Lowery helped King find a comfort zone.
“We knew he was going to have some growing pains, just like the whole defense,” Miller said. “We knew we just had to bide our time and work through them.”
A steady pass rush also provided a boost.
The Hawkeyes recorded a combined five sacks and six quarterback hurries in the last three games, but those numbers don’t fully reflect the unit’s shift in attitude.
“You’ve got to give part of it to those guys up front, and even coach Parker,” Miller said. “He did a great job of dialing up some blitzes a lot more those last couple weeks.
“That’s a lot of it, because he wasn’t giving them the chance to get the ball off as much.”
Will Parker continue to send extra rushers against LSU? And will it help corral the 6-foot, 193-pound Beckham (57 catches for 1,117 yards and eight touchdowns) and the 6-1, 195-pound Landry (75, 1,172 and 10)?
“Unbelievably athletic,” Miller said of the duo. “They’re top-notch players. They do everything.
“They’ll block downfield. They run great routes. And they don’t take plays off, which you can see some receivers do when the play is going away from them.
“They go full, 100 percent the whole time.”
2014 Outback Bowl
WHO: Iowa (8-4) vs. No. 14 Louisiana State (9-3)
WHEN, WHERE: Jan. 1; Tampa, Fla.
TIME, TV, LINE: Noon; ESPN; LSU by 7
BOWL RECORDS: Iowa: 14-11-1; LSU: 22-21-1
IOWA NOTABLE: Iowa started its season in mediocre fashion, losing three of its first seven games, though those defeats came against Northern Illinois, Michigan State and Ohio State — teams that went a combined 36-3. The Hawkeyes finished the season with the No. 7-rated defense in the country.
LSU NOTABLE: LSU is playing in a bowl game for the 14th consecutive year and rank 21st nationally with an average point total of 37.0 per game. The Tigers average 265.1 yards through the air — 33rd in the country — while their running game ranks 35th at 200.8 yards per game.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football