2008 was one of the best marks in school history by an Iowa team against the run; 94 yards per game allowed per game. That was good for 9th best in the nation and on par with the roughly 93 yards per game the 2003 & 2004 Iowa defenses allowed, and just behind the paltry 82 yards per game allowed by the 2002 Iowa defense.
Things backed away from the edge of elite in 2005 when Iowa allowed 126 yards per game on the ground. That was good for 29th best in the nation that year, which is not horrible by any stretch. That was also a very young defensive line, with true freshmen Mitch King and Matt Kroul on the inside, flanked by Ken Iwebema and Bryan Mattison.
The 2006 Iowa defense allowed 134 yards per game on the ground, which was 57th best in the nation. Now we are at the number of being ‘average' as there are 119 FBS teams, meaning 59th is the cut off line for being above average…even if ever so slightly.
The 2007 Iowa defense allowed 122 rushing yards per game which was #24 in the nation, so a solid figure. But with a young and inexperienced offense all across the board, the defense had to be better than that to give the Hawks much of a chance. They were very good on the scoreboard (18.8ppg allowed), but they couldn't do it all.
Iowa loses the heart of its defense, literally and figurately. King and Kroul have exhausted their eligibility and leave huge shoes to fill. In my opinion, no one person is going to fill Mitch King's cleats; he was one of the most disruptive interior line forces of my lifetime, but the good news is Iowa has seemingly found one of those in each little mini-era during the Norm Parker era. There have also been some nice surprises along the way, too.
I don't think Iowa is going to be as stingy against the run this year as they were last year, but I do think they are going to be more disruptive against the pass, but that is a story for another day.
I still think it's 50/50 on either Adrian Clayborn or Christian Ballard moving inside either part or fulltime this year, as they are big boys that would have a nice quickness edge against guards and centers. That, and Broderick Binns seems too productive to split time at defensive end, as he did late last season.
Karl Klug was Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week one week last year and has that King-like extra heartbeat. He is just a shade below 260 pounds, like King was his first three years on campus. Mike Daniels will also be in the mix at tackle, in addition to others that will throw their name into the hat.
Defensive line is just a part of the run stopping quotient; the linebackers are there to help, too. Iowa has arguably the best linebacking trio in the Big Ten. Or, if you want to give Sean Lee of Penn State the benefit of the doubt and assume he will come all the way back from his Spring 2008 torn ACL, then perhaps just a tick below the Nittany Lions group. All three starters return, and Norm Parker said in April that the competition at the WILL position between Jeremiha Hunter and Jeff Tarpinian is "closer than what Hunter thinks it is," bodes well for depth. Iowa is deep at all of the positions, so much so that you have players being talked out of transferring and into taking redshirt years in order to space out the eligibility chart (Jacody Coleman).
This will be a good front seven, with three of the four in the backfield returning, too. Add into the mix a seasoned punter, and this defense could do some really fun things.
Just how fun, and specifically, how stingy on the ground? Let's look at the opponents.
UNI shouldn't be able to run the ball between the tackles, although QB Patrick Grace is a dual threat, racking up nearly 135 rushing attempts last year for an average of 4.6ypc. He is not going to take you to the house like Kellen Lewis did in Iowa City two years ago, but in a game like this that I expect to be out of reach early, I could see UNI getting some cheap yards and hitting the 150 mark on the ground late. Last year, the only rusher to go over 100 on Iowa was from Maine.
Iowa State has a veteran offensive line that seems like it could do some good things, but has yet to be consistent. They are going to a more open spread attack, and they have three very talented ball carriers. This will definitely be a test for Iowa this year, but again, this is not going to be a between the tackles game, which Iowa would be all for. I think dominant rushing yards per game numbers, defensively, could actually creep up in this era of spread offenses, because I think running is going to come back in style soon, out of spread sets.
Arizona returns an 1150 yard rusher and a 525 yard rusher that accounted for 23 scores last yaer. Nic Grigsby, the former, averaged 5.4 yards per carry. The bad news is that the Cats lose three really good and really experienced OL's this year. They will also be breaking in a new QB who will make his first ever road start at Kinnick. Not sure what the Cats are going to be able to do for that 2:30 start.
Penn State returns the prettiest running back in the Big Ten in Evan Royster. That's my opinion, but I just love his footwork. He ground out just under 100 yards against Iowa last year and made a lot of people miss. Add in Darryl Clark at quarterback, plus the dangerous youngster Stephon Green as Royster's backup, and this might be the most dangerous running game Iowa will face all year. The good news is that Royster is the only returning 1,000 yard back in the league, in fact, there are only two backs that return this year that gained more than 663 yards last season.
Arkansas State is a running team. They return all but 25 of their rushing yards from last year and a lot of people carried the rock for them, include an 1100-yard+ runner. They got 91 on Alabama last year…not a lot…but they are going to keep pounding it.
Wisconsin has John Clay, who I preferred over PJ Hill. Would you believe that last year's yards per carry were among their best of the decade? But they lose a ton of beef up front, yet they will still carry it at you.
Indiana? No worries.
Northwestern loses Tyrell Sutton, who was the toughest runner Iowa faced all season. Mike Kafka will run at QB, because he can and he is not a great thrower. But again, he's no Kellen Lewis 2007, even if he did set the Big 10 record for rushing yards in a game by a quarterback against Minnesota last year.
Ohio State loses Beanie Wells, but returns Dan Herron. Really, a program of that recruiting stature is going to have three or four guys capable of running. Plus, quarterback Terrelle Pryor rushed for 631 yards, and that's after he had 222 taken away from him in sacks! That's a gain of 853. If Pryor is healthy, the defense is in for a battle here.
Minnesota returns all of their rushers, but those guys didn't scare anyone last year. That being said, the Gophers are allegedly returning a more balanced offense, with some emphasis on the power running game. So their numbers should be higher…but it's the last game of the year, in Kinnick, with a chance of a BCS bid on the line, right?
On the whole, I don't expect Iowa to put up the same numbers as last year, slightly less. 110 yards allowed per game, which if you use last year's rankings, would have been good for Top 17. I also think Iowa's field position battle will be better this year with a budding All American candidate in punter Ryan Donahue.