By LUKE MEREDITH AP Sports Writer
The Clinton Herald
---- — IOWA CITY — It is way too early to compare Iowa’s defense this season to some of the best of the Kirk Ferentz era.
So far, though, the Hawkeyes haven’t been half bad.
Iowa (2-1) is 52nd nationally at 21.7 points allowed per game heading into Saturday’s non-conference finale against Western Michigan (0-3). The Hawkeyes’ defense has given up just four touchdowns the past two games, both wins.
Iowa did allow Iowa State to score 14 points in the final five minutes of Saturday’s 27-21 victory. But it could be worse: It could be 2012, when the defense was a big reason the Hawkeyes finished with six straight losses.
“We’re just smarter. We took a lot of time in the offseason to become more football smart,” Iowa safety Tanner Miller said. “I just think all 11 guys have a lot more football IQ than we did last year. I think the game just slowed down for everybody.”
Without question, Iowa’s strength has been its rush defense.
The most yards a single player has run for against Iowa this season were the 56 picked up by Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch. The Hawkeyes gave up just 70 yards rushing to Missouri State in a 28-14 win on Sept. 7, and last week the Cyclones gained just 59 yards on the ground in 24 tries.
Iowa is fifth in the Big Ten and 16th in the country with 97.3 yards rushing allowed per game. The Big Ten schedule will bring tougher challenges, but the Hawkeyes are expected to be tough against the run all season.
“As a defense, we want to stop the run. To do that, you need to be fundamentally sound. You need to be physical. I think we’ve done that to an extent,” Iowa linebacker James Morris said. “We still have a lot of room to improve.”
Iowa hasn’t been nearly so stout in the secondary.
All four of the touchdowns the Hawkeyes’ defense has let up in the past two games came on significant pass plays.
Iowa has been forced to start freshman Desmond King with Jordan Lomax nursing a hamstring injury, and King has predictably had both good and bad moments.
But it was senior B.J. Lowery who got beat by Iowa State’s Quenton Bundrage on a 67-yard TD catch. Lowery over-pursued the receiver on a short pass near the sideline, and Bundrage spun away and ran roughly 60 yards without being touched.
Bundrage also caught TD passes of 26 and 17 yards in the fourth quarter. But Lowery bounced back with a leaping, one-handed interception that got the Hawkeyes off the hook for letting the Cyclones recover an onside kick.
Ferentz said Tuesday that Lomax could be back by Saturday, but it’s too soon to know whether he’ll be fit enough to start.
“With the end of the (Iowa State) game, those were just technique things, maybe getting a little lackadaisical,” Miller said. “There are moments in a game where you can really have the opportunity to put teams away, and I think that’s an area where this team needs to grow.”
With the start of Big Ten play less than two weeks away, Iowa’s preferred strategy for 2013 is coming into focus.
The Hawkeyes simply want to run the ball and stop the other guys from the doing the same. Only option-heavy Army and Air Force have more carries than Iowa, which appears intent on controlling games behind running back Mark Weisman and an impressive line.
If the Hawkeyes can continue to stuff what’s in the front of them and stop allowing so many plays to get behind them, Iowa might soon regain its reputation as a defensive stalwart.
“The good news is I think we can get a lot better,” Ferentz said. “That the thing I think I’m most excited about is that we still can play a lot better, and we’re going to have to. We understand that. It’s a process too, and we’re not a team that can waste a day. If we do, it’s probably going to show up.”