Following last week's loss to Wisconsin, Adrian Clayborn was visibly distraught. He teared up as he walked into the tunnel, contemplating his team's heartbreaking 31-30 loss that put a Big Ten championship in jeopardy.
In postgame interviews, Clayborn wasn't any better. He called out his team for not practicing hard enough—a rarity at Iowa—and vowed to bring the Iowa defense, generally considered one of the best in the nation, back to its elite status.
It wasn't long ago that the Iowa defense was receiving praise as the best in America. The Hawkeyes had just held Penn State to three points, shut down star running back Evan Royster, and ranked No. 1 in the nation in pass defense.
But there were problems. The pass defense gave up two many yards to a freshman quarterback and the linebackers were "dinged."
With a bye week coming, everything figured to be alright. The linebackers would shake off their injuries and the pass defense could fix up its issues. Not to mention, the team would have two weeks to prepare for speedy Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.
But over the next two weeks, the top-ranked Iowa defense was nothing like its former self. Michigan scored 28 points in a loss and Wisconsin drove the ball with ease on the Hawkeyes in its 30-point win, something no team has done to the Hawkeyes since 2007.
In the loss to Wisconsin two things were clear. One, the loss of linebackers Pat Angerer and AJ Edds really hurt the defense. It's not as much those two players specifically, but the depth and durability that was lost. Ferentz could count on Angerer and Edds to play nearly every snap, but this year, injuries have hurt the linebackers greatly.
Jeff Tarpinian has been solid when he has played, but hasn't played a significant role since being "dinged" in the Penn State game. Starter Troy Johnson was hurt against Penn State as well and senior back-up Bruce Davis is out for the season with an ACL tear. To make matters worse, the one experience player on the unit, Jeremiah Hunter, is questionable for Saturday's game.
That leaves the position up to two freshman—redshirted Shane DiBona and true freshman James Morris.
Morris has filled in nicely, especially in the Penn State game, but his youth has definitely shown. DiBona clearly lacks experience as well, and both linebackers were exploited by Wisconsin's short passing game. Both have promise, but clearly exposed a weakness last Saturday—a weakness that may linger for a few more weeks until the Hawkeye linebackers are healthy.
Youth may be an "excuse" for the linebackers' poor play over the last two weeks, but the Iowa secondary has been significantly worse than last season. Part of that may be due to the loss of cornerback Amari Spievey, who shut down every team he faced last season. But the Hawkeyes have two talented corners this year as well in Micah Hyde and Shaun Prater and safeties Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood were supposed to lead arguably the best secondary in the Big Ten.
Iowa has always run a bend-but-don't-break style of pass defense under Kirk Ferentz, but over the past few weeks, and really the entire year, the secondary has been giving up more yards than a unit of its caliber should.
Michigan back-up Tate Forcier shredded the Iowa secondary in the fourth quarter and Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien picked it apart throughout the entire game last weekend.
And, finally, the defensive line. It definitely hasn't been horrible, and at many times has played up to Iowa fans' high standards. But against Wisconsin's top-ranked offensive line, it was clearly overmatched. And in a match-up of sure-fire top ten draft picks, Clayborn was outplayed by Wisconsin offensive tackle Gabe Carimi.
Is that what stemmed Clayborn's frustration? Is it the close loss, a game Iowa has come accustomed to winning? Is it the 5-2 record? Or a combination of them all?
Whatever the reason, Iowa's defense needs to find an answer.
Typically, Iowa defenses outplay more talented teams. This year, one of the Hawkeyes' most talented defenses in years has underperformed. There's no question it has the talent to shut down all of its remaining opponents. But as Clayborn and company learned the hard way, talent isn't enough.
From here, the season can go two ways. Iowa can either reach its form, reach a second straight BCS bowl (perhaps in Pasadena), and reach the benchmark its fans set back in August. Or, like 2005, it can go into a tailspin, go to a worthless bowl, and waste loads of talent.
Luckily for Iowa, the senior leadership on this team has a much bigger presence than the 2005 team. Clayborn seemed sincere that his team was going to turn things around this week, in a desperation game to save a once promising season.
Michigan State brings a very good team to Iowa City, led by quarterback Kirk Cousins, a strong running game, and an experienced linebacker corps. And they bring with them that same magic that sent Iowa fans on a roller coaster ride last season.
The Hawkeyes certainly have a good chance to win. The offense shouldn't have much trouble moving the ball, especially against an average secondary, and Iowa's talented defensive line should be able to slow down the Spartan rushing attack. Do that, and on paper Iowa should be 6-2 and back in the Big Ten title discussion.
But more than any other sport, college football is about intangibles and emotions. If the defense comes in angry, focused, and energized—an electric Kinnick Stadium atmosphere should help—then Iowa will be back on track for that dream season everyone envisioned back in August. But if the Hawkeyes come out sluggish and heartbroken, a once promising season will be shattered.
Which Iowa team will we see this Saturday? It's up to the Hawkeyes to decide.
Adrian Clayborn made a statement in the interview room last Saturday. Now its time for he and his teammates to make a major statement on the field.