You can twist that any way you want, but no matter how you look at it, those are elite numbers befitting an elite defense.
However, those of us that have watched every Hawkeye game this season are questioning this defense. After all, this is a team that currently has a 7-3 record. In all three of their losses, the defense has had a chance to shut down the opposing offense in crunch time. And they have been unsuccessful.
At the 8:07 mark of the fourth quarter, Iowa was tied 27 apiece with Arizona. The Wildcats got the ball back at their own 27 and proceeded to drive down the field and score a touchdown in 4:07 and nine plays. Arizona won 34-27.
Against Wisconsin, Iowa had a 30-24 lead with 8:35 left in the fourth quarter. The Badgers got the ball at their own 20. 15 plays and 7:29 later, UW had a one point lead. The final score saw a victorious Wisconsin preserve the victory.
Against Northwestern, Iowa was up by 10 points with 10:56 left in the fourth quarter. After the fourth quarter was said and done, the Wildcats had mounted drives of 85 and 91 yards, totaling 13 and 11 plays. Both drives ended in touchdowns, and the Cats won 21-17.
There is a pattern here. Despite the Hawkeye defensive numbers, when the chips have been down, the defense has not been able to put teams away.
This is a departure from Kirk Ferentz defenses of the past, and it is a departure from last year's defense.
That defense, which was the 10th best in the country, had the exact same personnel as this year's defense short of three players.
If you clicked the above links, you will have noted that all three of those players were drafted. Moreover, two of them have starting roles for their respective teams. Meanwhile, Edds was looking to play a key role in passing situations, but an injury cost him the season.
I think a lot of people—myself included—did not give the loss of these three players its full due.
After all, Spievey was the top cover-corner in the Ferentz era, and I don't think that is arguable.
Also, Angerer and Edds were two of the top three coverage linebackers in the Ferentz era (with the other being Chad Greenway), and again, I don't think that's arguable.
I think a number of Hawk fans have been scratching their heads, wondering why this defense has been so vulnerable at so many key points of this season's games. I think the answer is apparent in the absence of Angerer, Edds, and Spievey.
As poster RJ Dio commented after a recent article:
"1. The replacements for Edds and Angerer are all fifth year seniors (Tarpinian, Johnson) or juniors (Nielsen) who, despite their tenure on the team, have been "career backups" for a reason. There has been a brewing drop-off in talent at the LB position behind Edds and Angerer for several seasons. So now, when we are elevating the "next men in," they are not up to the tasks required of them in this particular zone defense that Iowa runs. The gaping holes in the underneath zone that were easily exploited by Arizona, Michigan (second half), and Wisconsin bears that out. Any team with a decent passing game will continue to eat up that soft middle on our D.
2. The particular defense Iowa runs—a cover 2 soft zone/Tampa 2 type zone with only four rushers—REQUIRES fast linebackers who can plug holes quickly vs. the run AND play effective short area pass coverage. It's the same kind of D run by the Chicago Bears and the Indianapolis Colts (where, ironically, Pat Angerer is holding his own as the starting MLB in place of an injured Gary Brackett). Those defenses have worked (for the most part) because of a high talent level at the LB position.
In summary, this season Iowa is combining it's particular LB-dependent defensive scheme with a roster that is currently talent-deficient at that position. This is particularly painful to see because poor LB play is adversely affecting our standout D-line and safety positions."
Moreover, Iowa FC Stix Symmonds said many of the same things at various points after the Arizona loss.
Needless to say, these holes have been exacerbated by the multitude of injuries that have befallen the linebacking corps.
At this point, Iowa has lost its original starting LEO, Tyler Nielsen. Also, its starting MIKE, Jeff Tarpinian, who has missed the majority of the year with a stinger, has moved to LEO with his replacement at MIKE being true frosh, James Morris.
Tarp, Morris, as well as backups Shane DiBona, Ross Pedersen, Troy Johnson and Lance Tillison have performed well. For that matter, so has Micah Hyde—the true sophomore that is playing for Amari Spievey.
Nonetheless, you can't easily replace that level of talent, especially at a school like Iowa, which just doesn't have the inherent recruiting advantages of an Ohio State or Texas.
I don't mean to paint this as something it isn't. In the end, watching Northwestern move the ball down the field was just as painful to me as it was to any Hawk fan.
However, it has become fairly clear that the woes of the defense, more than anything else, are really a testament to how good Angerer, Edds and Spievey were. It is also a testament to what Kirk Ferentz has achieved on the defensive side of the ball, when the seventh best scoring defense in the country generates scorn.
In the end, if Ferentz's track record means anything, this unit will once again be the impenetrable force we've come to know over the last 10 years.
Besides, when you consider that two of the key linebacker replacements are freshman, it certainly gives a reason for optimism.
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