IOWA CITY, Iowa — At 5-3 overall and just 2-3 in the Big Ten, Iowa hasn’t lived up to its annual expectation of competing for the West division title.
Just imagine where the Hawkeyes might be if it wasn’t for their defense.
Iowa again has made life miserable for opposing offenses. The Hawkeyes are ranked 12th nationally at just 17.4 points allowed per game, and they’ve held their last four opponents below that.
Iowa was the only team in the country with more than one player named a semifinalist on Monday for the Bednarik Award, given to the nation’s top defender.
Linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Josh Jackson made the list for the Hawkeyes, who host third-ranked Ohio State (7-1, 5-0) on Saturday in what could be their defense’s biggest challenge yet.
“The biggest thing is production in the red zone. That’s always been big for us … being able to keep them out of the end zone, however you do it, is really important,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s something we’re really pleased about.”
Jewell has been about as good as expected in his senior season, leading the Big Ten and ranking fourth nationally with 11.6 tackles per game. He already has had five double-digit tackle games and was named a mid-season All-American by The Associated Press.
But Jackson, a first-year starter, has been a revelation for the Hawkeyes.
The 6-foot-1, 192-pound junior from Dallas bounced around between wide receiver and defensive back before finding a home at cornerback. Jackson has blossomed in a bigger role, leading the nation in both passes defended (17) and passes broken up (15) while helping the Hawkeyes overcome the loss of multiyear starters Desmond King and Greg Mabin.
“He’s gotten a lot better from when he came here,” Jewell said. “He’s always been really good at man (coverage), staying close to guys … but I think his knowledge of the game has increased a lot in the past year, especially the last few weeks and months, being able to understand different kind of coverages, what they’re going to do and where they’re going to come at him.”
Jackson’s natural gifts have certainly aided his improvement, as his speed and length have allowed him to physically dominate opponents all season.
“That dude is a freak. Really athletic, really smart. Sound fundamentally,” wide receiver Nick Easley said. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve told a ton of people that he’s a really good player.”
Iowa will look again to its defense to bail out an offense that has struggled to find its footing under first-year coordinator Brian Ferentz — who drew his father’s ire after he went on a profanity-laced rant in the press box at halftime after an officials’ review went against the Hawkeyes.
Kirk Ferentz said he has met with Brian about the incident and that athletic director Gary Barta, who is technically Brian’s supervisor so the team can get around charges of nepotism, will discuss his conduct later Tuesday.
“It was a really unprofessional act by Brian,” Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s got to stop. It’s just not acceptable.”