Hawkeyes’ defense off to fast start

T-R GRAPHIC

T-R GRAPHIC

IOWA CITY — It took just one game for Iowa’s defense to exceed its preseason expectations.

Iowa (1-0) dominated star quarterback Josh Allen and Wyoming in a 24-3 win on Saturday. The Hawkeyes allowed just 3.3 yards per play, stopped Wyoming on 13 of 18 third downs and never let the Cowboys inside their 20-yard line — despite the fact that their offense turned the ball over four times.

Senior linebacker Josey Jewell earned conference defensive player of the week honors after making 14 tackles with two sacks and a pass break up. But Jewell wasn’t the only Hawkeye who played as though it was November instead of September with a visit to Iowa State (1-0) coming up on Saturday.

“The most positive thing was just our response to the bumps that took place,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We didn’t protect the ball very well, but our defense never broke stride.”

Despite losing tackle Jaleel Johnson to the NFL, Iowa’s defensive line figured to be a strong point this season.

Iowa rotated eight linemen against the Cowboys, which kept the unit fresh and highly effective well into the second half. The stellar play of the line — which included 6-foot-8 Matt Nelson playing at tackle and promising freshman A.J. Epenesa’s debut as a third-down edge rusher — gave Iowa’s three senior linebackers enough time to make plays.

In addition to Jewell’s big afternoon, Ben Niemann had a career-high 13 tackles and Bo Bower made 11.

“The better they play, the better we play. If they can free us up to make tackles, that’s huge,” Niemann said. “Our stat sheet might have looked nice, but a big portion of that goes to (the linemen).”

Iowa’s front seven also kept Wyoming from establishing any semblance of a ground game, as the Cowboys ran for just 59 yards in 30 tries.

That forced Wyoming to lean on Allen for a comeback attempt. But Iowa’s rebuilt secondary kept one of the nation’s most gifted quarterbacks from doing much damage. Joshua Jackson, a junior in just his second career start, made five tackles, broke up a pass and returned an interception 41 yards.

The secondary will also get a boost this weekend with the return of starting cornerback Manny Rugamba, who was suspended for the opener for violating team rules.

“He got off to a great start,” Ferentz said of Jackson. “We’re really optimistic that he’s got a really good future.”

Iowa typically prides itself on having a strong defense, and with seven starters back from 2016 that figures to be the case again this fall. Though it was just one game, the opener suggested that the Hawkeyes have a chance to be as stingy as anyone in the Big Ten in 2017.

“It was just a good feeling getting after people and everyone just playing together,” sophomore tackle Cedrick Lattimore said.