Hawk D-Line Comes of Age

For nine weeks, the Iowa defensive line heard how it wasn't good enough. Even the positive perspective said the unit would be good someday. Well, that day came in Saturday's 20-10 win in Madison against No. 19 Wisconsin. Iowa dropped Badger quarterback John Stocco five times. Read about the breakout performance in this HN.com Premium Feature from Senior Writer Rob Howe.

MADISON, Wisc. - Bryan Mattison and Kenny Iwebema were conducting separate interviews below Camp Randall Stadium Saturday night when Mattison noticed items falling from his teammate's backpack. While continuing to talk to reporters, Mattison leaned over and zipped up the pouch.

It seemed appropriate. Iowa's defensive ends and their fellow line mates worked beautifully together that afternoon in terrorizing Wisconsin quarterback John Stocco. After a nine games of hearing about how it was young, inexperienced, undersized and hurting the Hawkeyes, the unit led the charge in a 20-10 victory.

"With all the work that we've been putting in, it just felt like, finally, it's here," said Iwebema, who sacked Stocco twice. "Everybody did great today. We were getting pressure. We were getting off blocks, getting to the football. It was a team thing.

"It's just repetition. We keep drilling it every day in practice. It took a little while to click. We're clicking now. We're running full speed now. We're going.

"It's a good feeling. We were having trouble getting to the quarterback. This week, we spent a lot of time on it. We always spend time, it was just something that clicked. Everything was clicking."

The Iowa defensive line entered the game with 18 sacks through the season's first nine games, which ranked 17th in Division I-A. It dropped Stocco five times on Saturday and ran him around the field on plenty of other occasions.

"I think all four quarters, they played amazing," Iowa senior linebacker Chad Greenway said. "(Wisconsin's Joe) Thomas is probably one of the best tackles in the country, and Kenny handled him pretty well today. That's a test for him. And he's a young kid that's gone against some great players this year, but he played like a senior today. We needed guys to play more like seniors, and that's what we got today."

Wisconsin came out throwing the ball around the field instead of handing it off to star running back Brian Calhoun. The attack caught the Hawkeyes off guard, and the home team drove the ball 32 yards in four plays for a touchdown on their first possession.

"I was a little surprised since Wisconsin is always a run team and they have a great running back back there," Iowa linebacker Abdul Hodge said. "At the same time, they kind of looked at the stats of the passing yards we had given up. Maybe they thought they had the edge coming out throwing the ball."

The Badgers attempted to kick start its running game after Iowa proved it could harass Stocco, but it turned out to be too late. Calhoun, who began the day ranked No. 4 among national rushers at 125.6 yards per game, carried 15 times for 18 yards Saturday.

"The challenge is for everybody to go out there and execute," Hodge said. "And everything starts up front. If they ran the ball, we were going to stretch it. The defensive line is going to stretch it out and the linebackers are going to make the tackles. Everybody got to the football and our defensive line played well all game in the running game and the passing game."

Iowa really benefited from a superb game plan from defensive coordinator Norm Parker and defensive line coach Ron Aiken. Their package of stunts confused the Badgers and their man-to-man blocking scheme.

"We did practice that quite a bit," Iowa defensive tackle Mitch King said. "We thought that might help us a little bit. We just kept working. If one stunt wouldn't work there, we'd come back and keep going to another one. It helped out a lot."

King recorded two sacks and mercilessly chased Stocco in, around and out of the pocket. His day was aided greatly by fellow tackle Matt Kroul, who often ended up taking on two linemen as a result of the stunting.

"He's the man," Mattison said of King. "He looked good. He did a great job today. It was a whole group effort. I don't want to take anything from King, but King gets a single block, Kroul gets a double block, and King makes the play. It takes something from everyone."

Critics have roasted Iowa's defensive line for much of the season. Coaches and players tried different alignments and lineups trying to find a way to get to the quarterback.

"Like our coaching staff said, we've just got to keep going no matter what happens," said Mattison, a sophomore. "We just keep practicing and kept playing."

However, they all heard the criticism. Even last week they listened to it when quarterback Brett Basanez engineered two touchdown drives in the final 3 ½ minutes leading Northwestern passed the Hawkeyes, 28-27.

"I'm not going to lie, on the bus ride home last week, it was tough," Mattison said "There was a lot you were thinking about. But we've got great seniors and we've got great leaders all around. They just kept us going all week in practice. It wasn't over. You've got to believe what they say."

Many members of the defense saw this performance coming from the young front four.

"As a defensive line, we knew we were getting better every game," said King, a freshman. "Our technique was getting better. We were stopping the run a little better every game. We were getting just a little more pressure every game. I figured one of these days we were going to have a breakout game like we did today."

Said Iwebema: "You've got to play with a chip on your shoulder. Every once in a while, you hear about teams getting comfortable thinking that they're better than everybody else. Once you get that chip on your shoulder, you're like, "OK, who wants some? Come get some." We just had to play like it was out last stand, like we had nothing to lose."

Iowa last received a performance like that from its defensive line last season, when the unit boasted two NFL Draft picks and four seniors.

"I don't know about last year," King said of the comparison. "Those are some big shoes to fill. But we stepped it up today as a defensive line. Kenny had a great game. Mike (Follett) came in and had a great game. Bryan had a great game. Matt Kroul, my buddy, he was a workhorse today. He took a lot pressure off of everybody else and did a lot of good things."

The victory earned the Hawkeyes bowl eligibility for the fifth straight season. However, it marked the first time that the young defensive linemen played a big role in that success.

"We've won bowl games and done all of these great things," Greenway said. "But the circumstances with the way this season's gone, this is a huge win for us, especially for the younger guys that have been getting a lot of playing time. They can see how if you come into a (tough) environment and stick together and play for 60, you have a chance."

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