IOWA CITY — In three of Iowa’s first four games, the defense allowed a touchdown on the opponent’s opening drive. Not just field goals, but touchdowns.
Iowa State, Northern Iowa and Central Michigan scored TDs on 75-, 83- and 72-yard drives, the kinds of drives that set a tone and put a defense on its heels.
If Minnesota quarterback Max Shortell put a little more air under his pass attempt to A.J. Barker, it might’ve happened again. But no, Shortell, UM’s No. 2 QB, left his pass a little short and free safety Tanner Miller yanked it away and hit the turf with his backside before tumbling out of bounds.
That put an end to the disturbing trend on the opening possession for Iowa’s defense. It also was the theme for the Hawkeyes’ 31-13 victory Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa’s defense picked off Shortell three times and recovered a fumble. The defense set a tone that put the Gophers on their hindquarters.
“We’ve been stressing all week that we had to come out fast,” Miller said. “We had a chip on our shoulder to stop them early. Luckily, we got a takeaway on that first possession. From there on out, I think we had the momentum on our side.”
That absolutely was the case in the first half. While the Hawkeyes built a 24-0 halftime lead, Minnesota produced three first downs, 75 yards offense and three three-and-outs.
“It was just simply energy,” linebacker Christian Kirksey said. “We started slowly in the first three games. Coach [defensive coordinator Phil] Parker stressed that we have to start fast to be a good defense. We can’t always be a second-half defense, we have to be a whole-game defense.”
Minnesota’s final three drives of the first half went 3 yards, 7 yards and 19 yards. The Hawkeyes kept the steam on during the first drive of the second half, with defensive tackle Steve Bigach forcing a fumble and Kirksey recovering.
Playing “fast” for the Iowa defense meant quicker play recognition and running to the ball. That showed up in the three interceptions, which included Kirksey’s pick and 68-yard return for a TD to make it 31-7 with 5:15 left in the game and seal the victory.
“It was just being ready to go at the first snap, that’s going to be a thing for us,” linebacker James Morris said. “If we can start fast, it’s going to give us an edge. A team is going to have to play catch-up if we’re playing well at the beginning of the game.”
The Hawkeyes kept the pressure on the whole game. Yes, the Gophers put together 79- and 80-yard TD drives in the second half, but that came along with three turnovers and a defensive TD. Parker threw in a few zone blitzes, with linebackers (Morris and Anthony Hitchens) picking up both of Iowa’s sacks.
The defense kept the play recognition up even after the final snap. The offense had the jump on it in the sprint for Floyd of Rosedale, with the O being out on the field while the D waited for the final 38 seconds to burn off.
“I was ready to sprint, [strength and conditioning coach Chris] coach Doyle was right behind me and said they have a timeout,” Morris said. “So, I went to run and he yanked me back.”
But no, the defense pieced this one together. It would get in on the Pig.
“I was one of the last guys and I think I ran over a couple photographers,” Morris said. “I got caught up in the kicking net. I was like a fish in a net, but I got out of that and got to the trophy.”