IOWA CITY — Iowa’s defense did everything it could. Seriously, name it.
The Hawkeyes forced two turnovers inside their 10-yard line. They had eight tackles for loss. Just as they did last week, the Hawkeyes shut the door in the second half, holding Iowa State to just 110 yards, five first downs and no points.
Iowa State marched down the field and scored a TD on the game’s opening drive and that was enough in a 9-6 gruntfest Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Time after time, Iowa’s defense rose to the occasion. Going into week 3 against Northern Iowa (1-1), the defense is Iowa’s strongest suit.
“I want it to be that,” linebacker James Morris said. “I want it to be on our shoulders. Iowa has had a lot of great defenses and I wouldn’t compare us to any of them at this point, but, man, I’d like to be one of those defenses.”
In the second half, ISU’s average starting field position was its own 40, including two starts in Iowa territory. When it looked as though the Cyclones were going for the kill — leading 9-6 with first down at Iowa’s 2 with four minutes left — Morris stepped in front of a Steele Jantz pass and picked it off at Iowa’s goal line, returning it to Iowa’s 49.
The Hawkeyes generated just three points out of four ISU turnovers. That is as “stat of the game” as you can get.
“The first half wasn’t great, first drive in particular, but I thought for sure in the second half they really grew up a little bit,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “You just feel that on the sidelines. We were more decisive, more confident and it certainly didn’t hurt that a couple of guys made some plays there, too.”
In the second half, Iowa’s defense forced four three-and-outs, held on a fourth down and hawked two turnovers. In two games this season, the Hawkeyes have 16 tackles for loss, the best two-game stretch since 2009 (seven against Ohio State and eight against Minnesota).
In the fourth quarter of their first two games, Iowa has allowed just 91 yards and no points.
“There aren’t any halftime speeches or anything like that,” cornerback Micah Hyde said. “We’re just making minor adjustments. Coaches are really good at telling us what they’re doing and I like that we’re a second-half team.”
Half of the Hawkeyes are a second-half team, of course. But the topic here is defense, which on paper coming into the season, was supposed to be the caboose.
Linebacker Anthony Hitchens’ 19 tackles pop off the stat sheet. He’s a first-year starter. End Joe Gaglione had a tackle for loss and now leads Iowa with four. He’s a first-year starter. Strong safety Tom Donatell, yes, first-year starter, had his first career interception.
No, it didn’t win. At this point, Iowa needs some sort of rallying point. The defense is trying.
“One thing about this defense is we’ve improved every snap, literally every snap,” Morris said. “We’re better next snap. If we keep doing that, we could be lights out.”