Howe: Defensive Line Rises Up

Iowa's defensive line entered last year buried under a mountain of accolades. Injuries and inconsistency prevented the group from reaching those heights. Saturday, the front four controlled the action in a 16-3 victory against Northern Illinois. Columnist Rob Howe sees the performance as a great sign for success moving forward in '07.

The media throng surrounded Iowa corner Charles Godfrey. Why not? He picked off two passes, broke up another and recorded seven tackles. Not a bad day's work for the senior.

Godfrey could have soaked up the praise, took a bow and walked off with his nomination for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. Instead, he shared the spotlight with the men that performed the dirty work.

"The defensive line played well as a whole," Godfrey said. "Mitch King, he had a great game. Without those guys, I don't think those interceptions would have been possible for me. I can't even explain how much it helped (the secondary). Those guys are tough down there. They pound the ball."

What a roller coaster trip it's been for this unit. Saturday, the car began ascending to the top of the ride again after plunging to the bottom throughout the 2006 campaign.

Iowa's front four sacked the Northern Illinois quarterback three times in a 16-3 defense dominated victory. It helped create three interceptions and hold the Huskies to 21 rushing yards on 21 carries. You wouldn't even have known Iowa was breaking in two new starters at safety.

You can spend your day focusing on dropped passes and penalties, both valid concerns, but take time to enjoy the reemergence of a talented group. It could most certainly be a key to a very successful season.

Drew Tate deserves a world of credit for his heroics during the '04 season, but the anchor of that team was a defensive line that dominated play. Wisconsin picked off two passes early in the game that year, but Iowa's front refused to let the Badgers steal a championship from it.

I really see this team needing a similar effort from its four on the floor. Let a first-year starter at QB and a pretty inexperienced offensive line manage the game, establish a running attack and limit mistakes, especially turnovers, and let the D-line harass the opposing signal caller and allow the linebackers and defensive backs to take the ball away.

To say Iowa's defensive line was embarrassed by its performance a year ago would be an understatement. Those guys came into the season rated by many pundits as the best group in the Big Ten and among the elite in the country. Injuries and inconsistency left them well short of those lofty labels.

"We talk about all the energy starts up front," defensive tackle Matt Kroul said. "It starts with us. If we're not getting pressure on them, the D-backs are going to be hurting. If we're not shutting the running game down, the linebackers are going to be hurting. So, we take the responsibility and run with it."

You can complain about the defensive backs not turning around for the ball or the linebackers being overmatched in coverage. Those things get exposed in this Iowa defense when the line does not apply consistent pressure on the quarterback and stop the running game. That's the scheme and Saturday showed how dominating the attack can be when things happen from front to back..

King spent much of last season dinged up. An undersized defensive tackle, the guy plays the catalyst role on the line much like Bob Sanders sparked things from the back during his days in Black and Gold. King set the tone Saturday with a sack on Northern's opening drive which resulted in an 11-yard loss.

"That's what we love about him," Kroul said.

"We needed to come out and set a tone," King said. "We needed to let them know we're coming to play."

King racked up two sacks, another tackle for loss and knocked down a pass. He did that while sitting out much of the third quarter because of dehydration.

King, Kroul and ends Bryan Mattison and Kenny Iwebema have started for four years. They played every snap in the first half on Saturday and probably would have done the same in the second had it not been for King needing an IV. It was clear that the coaches were going to lean on this crew.

"At times you're going to get tired because it's college football," Kroul said. "But we knew coming into this year that the guys behind us are going to take time to learn the system. They're really young guys."

Anton Narinskiiy replaced King in the third quarter.

"Coach said he wants us starting four out there as many snaps as we can," King said. "When I went out in the third quarter, Anton did a heck of a job. He did what he needed to do. When his time was called he did a great job."

Iwebema, who earned first-team all-conference honors in '05 but struggled with injuries and inconsistency last season, took on NIU's top offensive lineman, Jon Brost. The Iowa senior recorded a sack and another tackle for loss. His ability to pressure off the edge played a big role in Iowa's success two years ago.

"All I know is that we all worked hard," Iwebema said. "When we saw that score and it said we had more points than they did, I felt that we did the job."

Kroul said the defensive line is playing with a chip on its shoulder after last season's struggles.

"We know we have something to prove," King said. "I don't know if you want to call it a chip, but we have something to prove."

And what is that?

"We'll tell you in January," King said with a smile.

If the unit keeps bringing it like it did on Saturday, January is a legit possibility.

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