Wine Online: Distruptive Defenses and Trips to Happy Valley

Sept. 20, 2009

IOWA CITY, Iowa —Here’s what we know about the Hawkeyes three weeks into the football season.

They are 3-0, with a hair-raising victory over UNI and decisive triumphs over Iowa State and Arizona. While that slate of games does not represent Murderers’ Row, it should be noted that all three teams are now 2-l, with their only loss to Iowa.

The Hawkeyes have improved each week. After escaping UNI, they made an anticipated tough game at Ames look like an easy win. Their victories over Iowa State and Arizona were pretty much decided after three quarters of play.

Good leadership and chemistry have carried over from last year, and seem to be getting better.

Iowa’s defense has allowed only 29 points and two touchdowns. After intercepting five passes at Iowa State, it took away Arizona’s heralded running game. The Wildcats came into the game averaging more than 500 total yards per game. The Hawkeyes held them to half of that.

“Disruptive” is the word Arizona Coach Mike Stoops used to describe Iowa’s defense. His Wildcats managed only eight first downs and were unable to sustain any kind of attack. They would have been shut out if not for two big offensive plays and a pass interception.

You know a defense is disruptive when it makes the opponent change quarterbacks. Arizona did that Saturday after Iowa State did so the week before. The quarterback change did not work for either team.

Although it starts only two seniors, Iowa’s defense has been solid at all positions. Two players who deserve mention are safety Tyler Sash, who has four pass interceptions in the past two games, and end Adrian Clayborn, who has been Iowa’s disrupter in chief. When Clayborn is not making life miserable for quarterbacks, he’s chasing down speedy tailbacks.

Things have not gone as smoothly for Iowa’s offense, perhaps because of injuries. Its best lineman, Bryan Bulaga, has missed the last two games. Its best tight end, Tony Moeaki, and best wide receiver, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, were absent against Arizona.

Quarterback Ricky Stanzi has sometimes missed open receivers, and Coach Kirk Ferentz has turned to two freshmen — Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher — to run the football. Still, the Hawkeyes have moved the chains and scored points. Against a good Arizona defense, it sustained three touchdown drives of 70 yards or more.

You know a defense is disruptive when it makes the opponent change quarterbacks. Arizona did that Saturday after Iowa State did so the week before. The quarterback change did not work for either team.

The play of special teams has been highlighted by punter Ryan Donahue and kicker Daniel Murray. Donohue’s consistency is a big reason Iowa has generally enjoyed good field position. He averaged 51 yards on five punts against Arizona. Murray is 3-4 on field goal tries and his kickoffs have been consistently good. Where the Hawkeyes need improvement is kickoff coverage, which has been sloppy at times.

That’s the current status of an Iowa football team that opens Big Ten play Saturday. The opponent is Penn State and the place is Happy Valley, where more than 100,000 fans and a Nittany Lions team want revenge for the hole Iowa punched in their national championship balloon last year.

ABC-TV picked this for a prime-time game, starting at 7 p.m. CDT. The contest matches two unbeaten teams. Their defenses are the Big Ten’s stingiest in giving up points, but their offenses have not put up big numbers.

It’s an interesting match with intriguing angles, and it will get a lot of hype. Penn State will be favored because it is ranked among the five best teams in the nation and because it is playing at home.

But there is hope for the Hawkeyes, who have played well in this series. They have won seven of the last nine meetings, and five of the last six. Four of those victories were at Penn State. Two were in overtime. One win was by the bizarre score of 6-4.

Last year Iowa prevailed 24-23 at Kinnick Stadium. That’s the one the Nittany Lions remember. That’s the one that hurt most. You’ll probably hear it mentioned once or twice this week.

Let the hype begin.