IOWA CITY — Broderick Binns still reads the text messages he receives from his former defensive linemates.
They go way back and they keep in touch. Binns played with Adrian Clayborn, Karl Klug and Christian Ballard for nearly three seasons at Iowa. They sweated the same drills and heard the same yells from D-line coach Rick Kaczenski.
Binns still reads the texts they send, but he pauses for a second. Of course, everyone wants to know what the heck is going on.
“I get a little bit of that from those guys, obviously,” Binns said. “I tell them, we’re trying our best, we don’t have three superstars like we did last season. We’re all trying. It’s not like we enjoy having the ball run on us. We just have to work on it.”
You can say this about the Iowa defense — the Hawkeyes are last in third down conversions (50.88 percent) and ninth in total defense (406.7) — its collective attitude is healthier than most of the appendages on most of its linebackers.
“No one is dressed in black or anything like that,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “We’re going back to work. We have work to do. I think we’re all aware of that.”
No final word on senior linebacker Tyler Nielsen, who suffered a break in his left hand and had surgery the day after the Northwestern game. Sophomore linebacker James Morris, who missed Northwestern after suffering an ankle injury four plays into the Penn State game, revealed Tuesday that he has a high-ankle sprain, which can be a three- to four-week injury.
Ferentz said Iowa (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) has a chance to get defensive tackle Thomas Nardo (knee), linebacker Anthony Hitchens (knee) and Nielsen back for Saturday’s game at Minnesota.
Saturday, Ferentz called the rushing yards Iowa is yielding (161.6, eighth in the Big Ten) a “Pepto-Bismol” moment. Tuesday, he added third downs to the list of ailments, a topic he mentioned to the team on Sunday after the Hawkeyes allowed Indiana to convert 7 of 14 third downs.
In the last two weeks (against Indiana and Northwestern), Iowa has allowed third- and fourth-down conversions of 6 or more yards 10 times.
“I would say if we’re looking for one thing to start with, if you will, the makeable third downs, third-and-longs, third-and-mediums,” he said, “where our personnel should be getting off the field. We have to do a better job there, it would be a good starting point.”
If the Iowa defense is sliding off a cliff, it does have a few pegs it can hammer into the mountain before it goes splat.
Iowa’s red zone defense is solid, sitting second in the Big Ten with opponents coming away with points inside Iowa’s 20-yard line 70.97 percent of the time. Iowa has allowed the second-most red zone opportunities (31), but when the field shortens, the Hawkeyes need to cover less ground and make it difficult to score.
Also, a favorable turnover margin can keep the engine room from boiling over (and really, that’s where Iowa’s D is right now). Iowa’s takeaways aren’t outstanding (11), but the offense is taking care of the ball remarkably well. Iowa’s eight giveaways are tied for the 12th fewest in the country.
Penalties are another plus. The Hawkeyes lead the Big Ten in fewest penalty yards with 36.7 a game. That’s seventh nationally and a sign that the players are listening and, for lack of a better word, trying.
“Improvement, we’re just worried about improvement,” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said. “Same thing when it comes to injuries, improvement. That’s how you get back on the field by improving an injury.”
The magic personnel group or magic underclassmen or magic depth chart wonder isn’t coming. Everyone knows that. Ferentz said Tuesday changes in Iowa’s 4-3 defense are happening. It’s not massive overhaul, but little things that might help the Hawkeyes defend the run a little bitter. Perhaps things as simple as where they line up.
“You can’t just change the face of what you do, I don’t think,” Ferentz said. “It means you just got wiped out at a position or you hit the panic button, which I don’t think we’re in that situation in either case.
” . . . There is a lot of things you can do. Typically, what you do is you adjust within your system.”
No one is dressed in black — well, not until they play again in Kinnick — but no one believe in magic, either.
“There’s no magic to it,” safety Jordan Bernstine said. “Whatever defense coach calls, we’ve just got to go out and execute it.”