IOWA CITY — Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker did his homework. He knows where Iowa stands and where, maybe, it needs to stand a little taller.
Parker, in his 15th season at Iowa and second as coordinator, pointed out that the Hawkeyes are 11th in the nation in total defense and ninth in stopping teams on third down. He said Iowa has blitzed 59 times on 384 snaps (15 percent) with an effectiveness of 73 percent while allowing three touchdowns.
One number escaped him. Two, actually.
“We’d like to be 6-0,” Parker said during a Tuesday news conference. “We’re sitting there, the same situation we were last year, but I think our defense is much improved. I think our kids are definitely committed to the game. I think they’ve been playing tough. The effort has been great.
“I feel good about the group, the chemistry. I think we have more depth. I think there are more guys capable to go on the field to perform at a high level and win.”
Across the line of scrimmage, second-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis echoed those sentiments. He believes Iowa’s offense is better, deeper and has more weapons than it had during last season’s 4-8 campaign.
“We’ve got more guys who we feel like we could play, and that’s a good thing,” Davis said. “And we’ve got more guys I think who can fill different roles than we did last year.”
Parker is even OK with the number of 20-yard passing plays the Hawkeyes have allowed.Yes, that’s a pedestrian 55th in the nation, but halfway through the season, it’s on pace to be less than the 37 allowed in 2011. And, really, that’s the curve of improvement this team is on. It’s not a straight line, but more incremental. If it’s five fewer 20-plus passing plays than ’11, maybe two fewer TDs and one more victory.
But yes, Parker acknowledged that the secondary needs to rise up.
“I think the defensive line has definitely improved, the linebackers are definitely improved,” Parker said. “Just get the secondary up to par, we’ll be all right.”
Specifics with the secondary, Parker said senior cornerback B.J. Lowery has made plays and given up plays. And, really, that about sums it up.
“That all goes with the position you’re in,” Parker said. “You’re on an island, everybody sees it. There are a lot of guys up front making mistakes nobody knows about it, but once you give up one back there everybody knows about it.”
On safeties Tanner Miller and John Lowdermilk: “I think they’ve been improving since the beginning of the year. This game [Michigan State] was a little bit more of a challenge. I thought there were some plays that they could’ve made that they left out there. But I’m very pleased with them. I think they work well together.”
On the offensive side, Davis is “pleased” with sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock. In his first season as a starter, Rudock leads the Big Ten with 24 third-down completions that have gone for first downs. Iowa obviously has the tougher part of its schedule in front of it, but it has gone from 36.36 on third down in ’12 to 48.42 (27th in the nation) so far this year.
Davis likes Rudock’s feet, brain and arm. (He answered the “arm strength” question.)
“He is a learning machine,” Davis said. “He takes courses I can’t even spell. He’s very bright. He doesn’t make the same mistake twice.
“. . . The throw he made the first third down of the third quarter to Damond Powell, from one hash to their hash, over in front of their bench, that was a big time throw. That was a big time throw against good coverage. We’re not concerned with arm strength. The more and more he plays . . . and he’s pretty unflappable. He doesn’t get too high or too low.”
Davis also is pleased with the quick passing game, something that never got off the ground last season. He praised first-year wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy for his enthusiasm and knowledge. Still, he acknowledged, Iowa lacks the big threat in the passing game. The Hawkeyes have 14 pass plays of 20-plus yards. That’s No. 88 in the country.
“For us to be as good as we can be the quick game has to be good, and hopefully that sets up something down the field,” Davis said. “We’re trying to take more shots than we did last year. It would be nice if we hit some of them.”
Michigan State clearly marked running back Mark Weisman, who entered the game averaging 123 yards and 23.8 carries a game. The Spartans held him to 9 yards on seven carries before the junior left with a sprained ankle. Junior Damon Bullock took over and had 77 yards on nine touches, including a 47-yard TD.
Davis still wants to use Weisman and Bullock. He said Iowa needs both to show off what they can do.
“Damon has really improved the last couple of ballgames,” Davis said. “The numbers in the one game may not reflect this statement, but sometimes we see things hopefully before they happen. The last couple of ballgames he has played pretty well, his blitz picked up, his vision.
“I think earlier in the year he was looking for some home runs and not following his blockers, but the answer to your question, I think we will be better as we go when we have . . . Damon brings something that’s a little bit different [than Weisman], and we need both of those guys working at a high level to be able to get what we want out of them.”