IOWA CITY — It was a great success. It didn’t look or feel like it, but it most definitely was.
Flashback to 2001, when the Hawkeyes and third-year coach Kirk Ferentz were trying to get it off the ground. On a bright, beautiful October Saturday, Iowa faced its nemesis and tormentor, Indiana quarterback Antwaan Randle El.
In three games against Iowa up to that point, Randle El had torn off the Hawkeyes’ helmets and kept them as keepsakes, rushing 47 times for 291 yards and three touchdowns and completing 29 of 64 passes for 472 yards and five TDs.
It should go without saying the Hoosiers were 3-0 against Iowa during that stretch.
Iowa went into the 2001 Indiana game needing a victory in the worst way. Iowa was 3-2 going in and had to get past nemesis and tormentor Randle El. The Hawkeyes were 3-2 going into that game. They ended the season 6-5 before heading to a last-second victory over Texas Tech in the 2001 Alamo Bowl and launching into a stellar 2002.
“A huge game,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I think that was one of the turning points for the whole next 10 years.”
Randle El used his point guard skills to play keep away from the Iowa defense. He rushed for 127 yards and scored two TDs and passed for 160 more.
Randle El is the patron saint of slippery, mobile quarterbacks Iowa has faced during Ferentz and defensive coordinator Norm Parker’s 13 years in Iowa City. Northwestern’s Dan Persa, who’s had a hand in two victories over the Hawkeyes, has taken up where Randle El left off.
Last week was just the first round with this QB species. Iowa State’s Steele Jantz came down from the mothership and put up an otherwordly performance, gutting the Hawkeyes for 321 total yards and four TD passes.
Persa is up next followed by Minnesota’s MarQueis Gray, Michigan’s Denard Robinson and Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez.
This is the season of the slick, slippery, spread, option, no-huddle quarterback for the Hawkeyes. The first test was, just going off the scoreboard, a failure.
Some of the football terms you learned about coming out of last week was contain. If it’s not job one this week, it’s job one, two and three and maybe four.
“It’s stuff you learn like when you’re in junior high school, typically,” Ferentz said. “Well, you used to in the old days. I’m not sure anybody is learning it anymore. But anyway, I will say good high school and junior high school teams understand guys have to contain. I think most of us learn that growing up.
“We’re not doing a very good job of it, so we’re going to have to coach it better and just get it accomplished somehow.”
This week, it’s not a terribly pressing issue, but pace of play, another element that has bugged the Hawkeyes during their 5-5 run over the last 10 games, will be.
The Hawkeyes (1-1) face Pittsburgh (2-0) and its high-octane offense. There are T-shirts on the Pitt campus that read “High Octane Football.” This refers to first-year coach Todd Graham’s no-huddle offense, which isn’t, repeat isn’t, a spread offense. There is an option element, but Graham uses fullbacks and tight ends and wants his offense to be physical.
But either way, contain was an issue last week and it’s being stressed in practice and in video study. Tuesday, defensive tackle Mike Daniels recited the dictionary definition.
“Contain is whoever is the last man on the outside closest to the sideline,” he said. “If he’s not in his position, then the running back, quarterback, pitch man whoever can get free and just take off.”
Once the contain is cleared, the defense opens up like an oyster.
If it’s the quarterback who breaks it, he can survey the field and buy time for wide receivers to clear coverage. If it’s the running back, he has the corner turned and is in the secondary looking for a 20-plus gain.
“Most every defense, no matter what your scheme is, somebody is responsible,” Ferentz said. “Somebody has got to set an edge and hold an edge so the rest of the guys can help do their jobs and play their positions.
“But once a quarterback gets outside of that, any anybody with the football, but the quarterback in this case, gets outside, it puts everybody in a real precarious position, plus the guys coming across the field can’t be of any help or assistance.”
So, contain. There’s that.
In that 2001 Indiana game, Iowa used strong safety Bob Sanders as a spy and it worked. Sanders, who was a future NFL defensive player of the year in training, won the national Bronko Nagurski defensive player of the week award with 25 tackles.
“The quarterbacks we face are doing what they have to do to win,” safety Micah Hyde said. “I don’t think it’s the spread offense. We’ve showed that we can stop that. Quarterbacks do what they have to do to win.”
The fast-paced offenses also mean more snaps, the number was 90 last week, the most against an Iowa defense since Michigan State ’07, a double overtime game at Kinnick. For Iowa, that means more players in the rotation. Against Randle El in 2001, Iowa rotated two linebackers and two D-linemen into the game on a regular basis.
That defense also had Sanders, future Pro Bowl defensive end Aaron Kampman, future NFL safety Derek Pagel and future NFL D-tackle Colin Cole, among others. The Hawkeyes clawed out a 42-28 victory that arguably saved the season.
Iowa isn’t quite at that point this year, at least probably not.
“We have to get some pressure and make the quarterback antsy back there,” defensive end Lebron Daniel said. “The defense is not going to change. It’s our job to get it done, that’s pretty much the bottomline.”
Ferentz did say on his radio show Wednesday night that Iowa has enough good players on defense to build around, that they are working on a few things and there might be some changes in the next couple weeks. It was an interesting statement, but who knows if it will come to fruition.
The players will likely stay the same, or pretty close to it. A couple redshirts could come off, a couple speedier players could find a role, but Ferentz reminded everyone this week that there’s no waiver wire in college football.
Of course, there’s the obvious.
“There’s no one right answer,” middle linebacker James Morris said. “It’s a game about blocking and tackling. At the end of the day, they [Iowa State] did that better than us. When you take all the things apart and look at that, we failed to tackle, we failed to get off blocks at times. That’s why they ended up winning.”
Tackle, get off blocks, there’s that.