IOWA CITY, Iowa — After any Iowa turnover, the Hawkeyes defense thinks the same four words.
Put out the fire.
“We are all saying it,” linebacker Ben Niemann said. “[Defensive coordinator Phil] Parker will say it. So when we try to find him on a sudden change like that, he’ll give us a couple of words and we’ll all be in there.”
Points allowed is one statistic that shows that the Iowa defense is playing well entering October. The Hawkeyes are 30th nationally, allowing 19.2 points per game.
It goes back to the phrase the unit utters when forced into a tough situation.
Echoing Norm Parker
“Put out the fire” is a Norm Parker-ism. The former Iowa defensive coordinator said it all the time. It was one of his favorite phrases.
“Norm had a lot of them, but that’s one that really kind of says it all,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That is your job on defense. You can’t predict what’s going to happen.”
Whenever the unexpected occurs or the defense finds its back against the wall, the Hawkeyes need to find a way to get out of it.
Turnover. Put out the fire.
An opponent starts a drive on Iowa’s side of the 50-yard line. Put out the fire.
“You are going to get put in a tough situation, short field, but it’s not an excuse to give up points,” defensive end Parker Hesse said. “Our job is to keep points off the board, whether it’s field goals or touchdowns.”
The phrase centers around dealing with adversity, but it sums up Iowa’s defensive philosophy better than nearly anything else. Iowa players gravitated toward the phrase long ago. Now, teammates pass it on to each new batch of Hawkeyes.
“When I first got here,” senior linebacker Ben Niemann said when asked about the first time he heard it. “I don’t remember who said it.”
Putting it into practice
The Hawkeyes are a good defensive team on third down. Beyond scoring defense, none of the rest of the traditional defensive stats stand out.
Why so few points? It goes back to putting out the fire.
Take the Michigan State game last week, in which four of the Spartans’ 11 drives came off turnovers or began on Iowa’s 42-yard line or better. Michigan State scored only 10 points.
The Hawkeyes lost the game, but that was a win for the defense.
“That is a great feeling as a defense, that we can stand up and help the team in a situation like that because it’s tough,” Hesse said. “Obviously, they are feeling the end zone and sniffing the end zone, so that is when you really have to dig in and say we aren’t giving up even a first down here.”
Red-zone defense is another fire-worthy situation. All 17 Michigan State points came on trips inside the Iowa 20-yard line.
Penn State crossed the Iowa 40-yard line nine times on Sept. 23. The Nittany Lions made it into the red zone five times. But the Hawkeyes defense held the No. 14 scoring offense in the country to two touchdowns in a 21-19 loss.
Iowa didn’t win, but just like at Michigan State it seemed as if the defense came out ahead. That’s because the Hawkeyes put out the fire more often than not.
“No one is going to play perfect,” defensive tackle Nathan Bazata said. “So when the other team gets an interception, fumble or something, it’s our job to get a three-and-out and get the ball back to our offense. That is just kind of our job.”
Getting their due
Complementary football is important at Kinnick Stadium. It’s a yin-yang concept.
Essentially, the defense wants to do its part to set up the offense and special teams. Offense and special teams wants to do the same. No one wants to leave another unit hanging.
It doesn’t always work. The Michigan State game proved as much, but it allowed the defense to shine. Iowa gave up 38 points the last two weeks, but the losses overshadowed the defense’s performance. A lot of stories have been devoted to the offense and running game the last several days. The defense has flown under the radar.
It doesn’t matter to the Hawkeyes. They’ll just keep putting out fires.
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