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The Transformation of a Defense

The Transformation of a Defense

11/6/2002 by Mike Zierath of Hawkeye Nation


Prior to the start of this season, the question mark on the Iowa Hawkeye defensive unit rested with the front four.

On offense, the main concerns, voiced by every expert in the county and many non-experts, was the replacement of every skill position player.

Could Iowa produce enough points to win games? One thing was certain: Iowa’s defense would keep opponents from scoring, thus allowing the offense to feel its way along until they jelled.

I’m not sure they, and we, could have been more wrong!

The offense got it going immediately and has been averaging, through last weekend, an impressive 36 points per game. Who’d have thought that this team would be the offensive juggernaut that it has been? With that not being the primary concern, all eyes focused on the defense.

Benny Sapp’s dismissal from the team prior to practice getting underway opened a whole new can of worms for the Iowa coaching staff. It meant that we would have to go with a redshirt freshmen at one corner, and an unproven senior at the other. It created an immediate defensive problem for the staff to solve.

Honestly, the first game was little more than a scrimmage. What it told the fan base was that Iowa could score points against an over matched opponent. It also told another story: The defense had been exposed!

They gave up 363 net yards to the Zips, 296 of those yards via the pass! Akron scored a relatively easy 21 points on a defensive unit that was supposed to be this team’s mainstay. Could the departure of one player have such an impact? It looked that way.

The second game against Miami (OH) was supposed to be a tester, and it was. Going in, everyone knew the Hawkeyes would see a talented quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. He threw 51 passes that Saturday afternoon for 343 yards and 3 touchdowns against a very soft Hawkeye secondary. Iowa escaped with a hard fought 29-24 victory. The problem, and everyone was seeing it, was that we couldn’t defend the pass.

Against Iowa State, it bit us. An almost perfect first half had Hawkeye fans dancing in their seats. But a game is a full 60 minutes. Outscored 29-0 in the third and most of the fourth quarters, the Hawkeye’s lost 36-31, to their in-state archrival, ISU. Okay, we know the Hawks allowed ISU to play on a short field for most of the second half. And we also know that Iowa was facing possibly the strongest throwing quarterback we’d see all year, but facts and stats don’t lie. Seneca Wallace burned the Iowa secondary for 361 yards on 23 completions. He made some nifty plays to get the Cyclones out of trouble more than once. The ‘bend, don’t break’ concept hadn’t worked against this talented group. The vultures were beginning to swarm!

It didn’t get any easier the following week. Before a very quiet crowd, Iowa put up big offensive numbers yet again, beating Utah State 48-7. Jose Fuentes, a very gifted quarterback who didn’t have a very good game, still threw for 214 yards, but the secondary finally kept an opposing receiver out of the end zone.

With the BIG 10 season looming directly ahead, and a trip to Happy Valley first on the list, the Hawkeye’s had to find some permanent answers to the obvious problems plaguing them.

Iowa played superbly in the first half at Penn State. Matter of fact, they once again looked like the team that had throttled ISU for a half before going down to defeat. Through 3+ quarters, the Hawks were firmly in control, and then it happened! In the time it took 5 minutes and 54 seconds to tick off the play clock, Zack Mills and PSU scored 21 points to tie the game, all through the air. And not just a few yards through the air either, but major chunks of real estate.

With all the momentum in the world, it looked bleak for the Hawkeyes. Somehow, they pulled it together enough to score on their first possession of OT to regain the lead. The defense was able to mirror that togetherness and stopped PSU on 4th down, inside the 10-yard line. Final: Iowa 42, PSU 35! Iowa fans were doing the hokey pokey in Happy Valley once again! Stats? Zack Mills threw for 399 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Through the first 5 games of the 2002 season, Iowa was 4-1. The offense was scoring boatloads of points. Special teams play was truly special. They did, however, rank dead last in pass yardage allowed. They had given up an incredible 1613 yards (322.6 yds per game) through the air. Knowing that the Big 10 was no longer “3 yards and a cloud of dust” league, led many to speculate that the Hawks were in trouble.

The one thing that had been overlooked by a lot of people at the time was the fact that Iowa had one of the stingiest rush defenses in the county. Having given up net rushing yardage of 67 yards to Akron, 14 to Miami (OH), 85 to ISU, 21 to USU and 54 to PSU, Iowa was ranked second in the nation in rush defense. That stat was continually played down as a positive side effect of having a terrible pass defense. Was it?

The Hawkeye defense was allowing a porous 24.6 points per contest average. It didn’t bode well for the future. Or did it?

In Iowa’s first Big 10 home game, the Hawkeye’s hosted Purdue. It was Iowa’s homecoming, and it was perhaps the most exciting game I’ve ever attended. The Boilermakers certainly didn’t treat the home team kindly, jumping out to a 14-3 lead. Just as it appeared they would push that lead to 17-3, something happened. The field goal attempt was blocked! Iowa returned it 85 yards and gained the momentum edge heading into half time. Three minutes into the second half, Iowa special teams came through once again, this time blocking a punt. The ball bound backwards, into the end zone. Iowa fell on it and took the lead, 17-14. With the excitement barely down to a simmer, the lid boiled off the Kinnick pot once again, when deep in their own territory, Brad Banks hit tight end Dallas Clark with a little pass in the flat. One hurdle and 95 yards later, Iowa extended their lead to 24-14. Now it was up to the defense to hold on!

Kyle Orton had been replaced by Brandon Kirsch at quarterback for the Boilermakers. He was far more mobile and his legs hurt the Hawkeyes, who once again were sitting in the soft cover two that they had played for much of the season. Kirsch made them pay. Leading Purdue back from a 10-point deficit, Kirsch and the Boilermakers regained the lead, 28-24 with just 5:45 to play.

Iowa answered! Not once, but twice. The first answer came on 4th and goal from the 7-yard line with 1:12 or so to go in the game. Iowa had just marched the length of the field to put themselves in a position to win. This was it! Brad Banks rolled to his left and threw back across to a wide-open Dallas Clark! Iowa 31, Purdue 28. Pandemonium is the only way to describe what erupted from the Kinnick stands!

But Purdue wasn’t done. They took the kick and proceeded to march down the field with short, precise passing. Just as it appeared that Purdue was in position to at least tie the game, a young red shirt freshman named Adolphus Shelton gathered in a pass that had bounced off a Purdue receiver and into his hands (after Iowa defensive lineman Jared Clauss got his paw on the ball at the line of scrimmage to deflect it ever so slightly.). That was the second answer! The defense, having just given up 97 yards on the ground and another 410 yards through the air, had held.

Like a caterpillar coming out of its cocoon, a defense was born.

The following week, a highly rated preseason favorite rolled into Kinnick Stadium. The Charlie Rodgers/Jeff Smoker led Michigan State Spartans hadn’t fared too well to this point and they wouldn’t fare any better against a fired up Hawkeye team. Rodgers had an NCAA record 13 straight games with a touchdown reception. It was just assumed that it would grow to 14. You know what assuming does, right? Rodgers never saw the end zone.

The defense, employing a variety of looks, held MSU to just 194 passing yards and 1 touchdown through the air while giving up just 55 net yards rushing in the 44-16 win, a very respectable total on both fronts. The defensive line stepped up and applied constant pressure, sacking the quarterback 4 times on the day.

Iowa went on the road after that game, traveling first to Indiana. Thanks to a fast offensive start, Iowa was up 17-0 before the Hoosiers could blink. They went on cruise control from there, only scoring once more. But the Iowa defense stood tall on this day, giving up just two field goals and a safety in a 24-8 victory. It was the first time all year that Iowa had allowed a team to rush the ball for over 100 yards, giving up 146 on the ground. Gibran Hamdan, the Hoosier quarterback, threw for 335, but couldn’t find the end zone, thanks to three interceptions by Grant Steen and six sacks, primarily by the front four. It was ugly, but the defense made a statement.

The next week, Iowa went to Ann Arbor, MI to take on eighth ranked Michigan. The Wolverines never saw what hit them as Iowa laid down a little Hawkeye law in what would become the worst Michigan home loss in 37 years, beating the Wolverines, 34-9. It would have been worse, save for a dropped punt by David Bradley at the Hawkeye 3 yard line. The “D” only gave up 12 first downs and 171 net yards to a top 10 team, 22 on the ground and 149 through the air. It was, needless to say, very enjoyable for all the Hawkeye fans in attendance. The players grouped up and led the fans in the Iowa fight song, in the “Big House!”

Iowa was gaining respect. The team was now ranked in the top 10 in the nation with a tough Wisconsin bunch coming to Kinnick the following week. Could they remain focused?

We got our answer against the Badgers. It took awhile for the offense to get rolling, but they did. Iowa “begrudgingly” gave up a few yards, while bringing the wood! This team, this defense, may be the hardest hitting group I’ve ever had the privilege of watching. They are amazing and the Badgers paid dearly for it, losing quarterback Brooks Bollinger to a concussion midway through. Quarterback Jim Sorgi didn’t fare much better. There were more than a couple occasions that he didn’t appear to want to get up very badly. Their star sophomore, Anthony Davis was held to a career low 34 yards rushing on 16 attempts. A mere pittance to what he is accustomed to. The secondary and defensive line held the passing game in check as well, giving up a paltry 137 yards on 11-30 passing, picking off two.

Through the second 5 games of the season, the defense has given up just 1225 passing yards (245 yds per game) and 398 rushing yards the “second” half. 60.8% of those passing yards came in 2 games, Purdue and Indiana. The Iowa rush defense, now first in the nation has given up over 100 net rushing yards just once. The secondary has collected 15 interceptions. Special teams have 4 blocks on the season, all resulting in points. The starting front four have 20 sacks between them. Non-starter, Matt Roth, leads the team with 7 of the total 31.

Maybe the most remarkable figure is the positive gain in points allowed per game. The Hawkeye’s have held opponents to just 15.6 through the last five games, 9 points better than the first five!

The national respect has been slow in coming, but it is gaining momentum quickly. Many still wonder why, but the reason was due to the fact that Iowa’s early numbers just didn’t deserve the respect that they do now.

The defense has truly transformed into something a bit more than that early, ugly caterpillar that we saw; it is now beautiful as a butterfly, with the sting of an angry group of bees!

Hawkeye NationHawkeye Nation was founded by Jon Miller, and later acquired by Rivals and Sports Illustrated. You can visit them at

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The Transformation of a Defense - Summary of Iowa football and basketball games