Tough Inside the 20s

Oct. 28, 2011

The Hawkeyes Check Out TCF Bank Stadium

MINNEAPOLIS — A successful start to the 2011 season by the University of Iowa football team appears to be in direct correlation to how the Hawkeyes have performed inside the 20-yard line…both offensively and defensively.

Iowa is in Minneapolis preparing for Saturday’s contest against the Golden Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium (2:42 p.m. CT). The Hawkeyes enter the game with a record of 5-2 overall, 2-1 in the Big Ten Conference; Minnesota is 1-6, 0-3.

There is no offense in the league better than the Hawkeyes in the red zone — that includes No. 12 Wisconsin and No. 13 Nebraska. Only No. 17 Michigan is better through seven games in red zone defense.

Compared to all Football Bowl Subdivision teams, Iowa is tied for fourth in red zone offense (behind Stanford, LSU, Western Michigan and tied with Ball State) and 11th in red zone defense.

“I don’t know if there is any secret. We’ve done a good job of executing on both sides of the ball,” UI head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Defensively, we’re fortunate. They’ve been moving the ball up and down the field pretty readily on us. We have to continue to be good there. Offensively, it’s pretty good, especially if you’re scoring touchdowns. That helps.”

A recent example is Iowa’s 41-31 win against Northwestern on Oct. 15. The Hawkeyes gained 116 fewer yards and had 12 fewer first downs than the Wildcats, but Iowa was a perfect 4-for-4 in the red zone, while Northwestern was 3-of-5.

“You have to toughen up in the red zone,” UI linebacker Christian Kirksey said. “That’s a very important part of our defense. You have that extra push of adrenaline of not letting an opponent score.”

The Hawkeyes have been perfect in the red zone six times this season: at Iowa State (5-for-5), against Pittsburgh (3-for-3), against Louisiana-Monroe (6-for-6), at Penn State (1-for-1), against Northwestern and last week against Indiana (4-for-4). Iowa was 3-for-4 in the season-opener at home against Tennessee Tech, but that is deceiving: the Hawkeyes ran two clock-killing rushing plays to De’Andre Johnson inside the Golden Eagle 20 and time expired with Iowa leading by 27 points — and in no need for more.

“We become a little bit more focused,” UI right guard Adam Gettis said. “We want to score 100 percent in the red zone. That’s our big deal as a lineman. Once we get in the red zone, that means it’s time to go. For me, it’s one of the statistics I keep up with. We want to score and we have to put points on the board. We talk about it every day.”

For the season, Iowa is 26 of 27 (96.3 percent) in the red zone with 17 touchdowns (11 rushing, six passing); kicker Mike Meyer is 9-for-9 in red zone field goals. Only four of the 12 Big Ten schools convert inside the 20 at a rate of 90 percent or better: the Hawkeyes, Wisconsin (94.7), Nebraska (91.2) and Michigan (90).

“That starts with balance,” UI quarterback James Vandenberg said. “When you can run the ball like we’ve been able to run it the last couple weeks really provides a different dimension for the defense. With those guys pushing up front and getting (Marcus) Coker going makes us hard to stop down there.”

Coker has eight rushing touchdowns this season with all of them coming from within the opponent’s 5-yard line. Two have come from four yards, two from two yards and four from a yard out.

“Any time you get in the red zone, everyone has to step it up even more than we usually do,” Coker said. “It’s about stepping up our intensity.”

Michigan is first in red zone defense (63.6), followed by Iowa at 71 percent. Opponents have been inside Iowa’s 20 on 31 occasions this season, but they have been limited to 17 touchdowns and five field goals.

How does Saturday’s opponent compare? Minnesota is eighth in the Big Ten in red zone offense (81 percent) and 10th in defense (87.1).