During the preseason, Iowa's defensive line was regarded as the best in the nation by nearly every media outlet. All-American Adrian Clayborn returned and the rest of the line was supposed to be All-Big Ten material.
But with the exception of newcomer Mike Daniels, the line had been fairly quiet statistically this season. Disruptive, but without headlines.
That changed Saturday night in Iowa City, as the Hawkeyes crushed Penn State 24-3.
Clayborn finally started putting up All-American numbers—a team-high ten tackles, three tackles for loss, and a sack—all while fighting through constant double teams.
"We had to get back to the basics and stop being fancy," Clayborn said, adding that finally getting a sack was a relief.
Iowa mixed the line around this week, starting Christian Ballard at defensive end to make room for defensive tackle Mike Daniels, who has burst onto the scene for the Hawkeyes.
The move turned out to be a stroke of genius for Ferentz and company. Ballard was constantly disruptive in the Penn State backfield and made a huge stop on fourth down, when Penn State threatened from Iowa's one-yard line.
"His versatility makes us deeper," said Clayborn.
In the middle, the Hawkeyes were solid as well. Defensive tackle Karl Klug was a force, collecting key stops throughout the night, and Mike Daniels had several big hits.
The point--this defense can flat-out play. And anyone doubting whether this unit was one of the top units in the country doesn't have any ammunition anymore.
"We beat some teams we should have beat and we lost to Arizona." said Clayborn, "so this was a game to see where we're at.
Where they're at is pretty darn good.
Remember that this isn't Ball State or Eastern Illinois. This is one of the most respected programs in college football history, a team that comes in with a running back—Evan Royster—who will likely break the Penn State all-time rushing record.
Tonight, the defense stuffed Royster in his tracks. He was held to only 56 yards—a majority of which came on a couple plays—and the entire team only had 78 yards total on the ground.
The Iowa defensive front pressured Penn State quarterback Rob Bolden all night, and pushed around an already beat up Nittany Lion offensive line.
The Hawkeyes rarely blitz in the first place, but never even needed more than four players to disrupt the Penn State offense. That allowed the secondary to loosen up and, save for one big pass play, shut down PSU's deep threats.
But most importantly, Iowa delivered when it matter most. Instead of falling short in crunch time like it did in Arizona, Iowa got a stop when it needed it most, forcing a turnover on downs and destroying any hopes of a Penn State comeback.
Great teams respond when their backs are against the wall, and that's exactly what this Iowa unit did Saturday night.
Next up is a bye week, then Michigan, as the Hawkeyes face one of the best rushing quarterbacks in the country in Denard Robinson.
It will be yet another chance for Clayborn and company to "prove themselves" to a national audience. Playing in the Big House is always tough, especially against a team as hot as this Michigan squad.
But if we learned anything Saturday night, it's that this Iowa unit will be up to the challenge.
We finally saw the Iowa team that we were supposed to see this year--that tough, speedy, defensive-minded team with a powerful offense as well. And despite the early blip to Arizona, this group, especially the heralded defensive line, is clearly as good as advertised.