MADISON, Wis. – C.J. Beathard improved to 6-0 as the Iowa football team’s starting quarterback on Saturday, but for once, he wasn’t one of the stars.
That role was shared by senior running back Jordan Canzeri and by an Iowa defense that held 19th-ranked Wisconsin to just 86 rushing yards during a 10-6 victory at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers only averaged 2.5 yards per carry as a team against an Iowa defense that was considered suspect heading into the season.
“They just played a super game,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of his defense, which still hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown in five games this season. “It wasn’t always pretty. It wasn’t always clean. And that’s really how the football game was.
“And we kind of anticipated that coming up here that it might be this type of football game. We’ve been in these types of game with them before. I thought both defenses really played hard.”
Iowa’s defense had to play well on Saturday to make up for Beathard, who had his least productive game as a Hawkeye, completing just 9-of-21 passes for 77 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The Hawkeyes also played without senior receiver Tevaun Smith, who missed Saturday’s game because of a knee injury.
“Obviously, offensively we didn’t do as well as we wanted to do, but the defense stepped up and compensated for how the offense was playing,” Beathard said. “We knew going into it that Wisconsin has a good defense and they did some things that were really good on defense at stopping us.
“There were plays that we had out there that we just missed or we didn’t protect right. But that’s part of football. And that’s the way the game was. The defense did a great job of stepping up and making plays.”
Iowa’s defense bent at times on Saturday, but never broke. All the Badgers could muster were two field goals by Rafael Gaglianone in the first and third quarters. The Hawkeyes also forced four turnovers, including two interceptions by junior cornerback Desmond King, who is rapidly becoming a star.
Wisconsin was driving for a potential game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter when King and his cohorts rose to the occasion yet again. The drive ended with Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave throwing an incompletion on fourth down at the Iowa 16-yard line.
“We feel like we have something going on special here,” King said.
King already has five interceptions in five game this season. He wasn’t aware until being told after Saturday’s game that the Iowa single-season record for interceptions is eight, held by Lou King and by somebody named Nile Kinnick.
“It’s a little motivation,” Desmond King said. “It’s a goal now. So I’m setting that as my goal, get past that and just help the team out as much as I can.”
It’s hard to think of an Iowa football team that was successful without having a solid and opportunistic defense. The Iowa defense performed well at times last season, but unraveled down the stretch.
I kept having to remind myself that Iowa had six starters on defense in Saturday’s game who also started in the TaxSlayer Bowl last January. The TaxSlayer Bowl was a disaster as Tennessee shredded the Hawkeyes for 283 rushing yards during a 45-28 victory.
So what’s the difference?
How could the Iowa defense go from being a sieve against Tennessee to being the star of the game against Wisconsin?
“It’s just the change of the team,” King said. “That was the 2014 team and this is the 2015 Hawkeyes right here.
“This year we feel special. We’re a family and everybody is working together and making each other better.”
It’s probably more complicated than that, but it really doesn’t matter how the change has occurred. All that matters is that the Iowa defense is performing at an elite level. And when that happens, history shows that anything is possible.
Senior leadership has helped a great deal with the resurgence on defense. And by leadership, I mean making the right decisions off the field and making big plays on it.
There was no bigger play in Saturday’s game than when senior Nate Meier lined up as a nose guard midway through the fourth quarter and forced Stave to fumble at his own 1-yard line. Reserve defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie then recovered the fumble at the Iowa 5.
Meier starts at defensive end, but also plays nose guard for Iowa’s goal-line defense.
“We got low, we got some good pressure and Faith came up with that huge fumble recovery,” Meier said. “Our coaches always harp on us to have low pad level, so you can shoot the gap as hard as you can.”
As for Canzeri, he sparked the offense by rushing for 125 yards on 26 carries. It was his third 100-yard rushing performance this season and his fifth as a Hawkeye.
“As an offense we let certain thing slip in the red zone,” Canzeri said. “We didn’t come away with as many points as we wanted to.
“We put a lot of pressure on our defense. But our defense stepped up and did an amazing job.”
Junior tight end George Kittle scored Iowa’s only touchdown on a 1-yard pass from Beathard late in the second quarter. Kittle, who has scored touchdowns in back-to-back games, gained inspiration on Saturday by watching the Iowa defense quell one Badger drive after another.
“They’re a group of guys where on every play they’re going to give the most that they can give,” Kittle said. “They terrorize us during practice and it’s just a testament to how the defense has worked during the entire offseason and spring ball. They just put their nose to the grindstone and it’s showing in every game.”
It’s also showing in the win column with Iowa 5-0 for just the fifth time since 1961 and for just the second time with Ferentz as head coach.
So maybe there is something to the old saying that defense wins championships.