Iowa vs. Northwestern

The Hawkeyes' Jordan Bernstine leads the hit on Northwestern's Kain Colter Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (John Schultz / Quad-City Times)

John Schultz

IOWA CITY — When Iowa football players showed up for practice Tuesday afternoon, nobody was waving a white flag.

Instead, Hawkeyes defenders arrived ready to work on correcting short-term and long-term deficiencies that have plagued Iowa throughout its 5-3 start.

“That’s all we can do, keep working and try to get better,” cornerback Micah Hyde said. “Like any loss, last week was disappointing, but we have to move on. We don’t have any other choice.”

Statistics magnify the fact that this is far from a vintage Iowa defense.

As the Hawkeyes prepare for Saturday’s 11 a.m. home game against 13th-ranked Michigan, Iowa ranks ninth in the Big Ten in total defense. The Hawkeyes allow 402.2 yards per game, ranking eighth in the conference in defending the run and 12th in the league in pass defense.

While opponents have thrown for an average of 238.6 yards per game against Iowa, it is the 163.6 yards per game the Hawkeyes have given up on the ground that gnaws at coach Kirk Ferentz.

“I still believe our No. 1 focus has to be on stopping the run,” Ferentz said at his weekly news conference. “The bad news there is that Michigan is running for about 250 a game and probably could go for 400 if they chose to.”

Ferentz said Iowa will forge ahead on trying to plug holes in its defense, which also ranks ninth in the Big Ten in points allowed.

“I don’t think it’s a lost cause,” he said. “We haven’t surrendered. We don’t plan on surrendering.”

There is no quick or simple fix, in part because there is no single problem.

“We’ve got to do a better job of getting off blocks. We’ve got make plays. It’s a big pride thing for defensive guys, you want to stop the run,” defensive tackle Steve Bigach said. “We try to hold every team we play to under 100 yards rushing. That’s the goal every week. We haven’t gotten it done.”

Iowa has yet to hold a Big Ten opponent below 150 rushing yards, and the Hawkeyes’ rushing defense average is the program’s worst since giving up 245.3 yards on the ground in 1999, Ferentz’ first year as Iowa’s head coach.

Play by linemen and linebackers has the most impact on defending the run, and defensive tackle Mike Daniels believes the Hawkeyes are making strides.

“I feel like we’re working better together, but we have more work to do,” Daniels said. “We gave up 22 points last week, and it wasn’t good enough to win. We have to keep at it.”

Ferentz said Iowa’s issues extend beyond a defensive line that sent three of last year’s starters to the NFL.

“The line affects the secondary, and vice versa. Everything goes together, at least it does the way we play,” Ferentz said. “We have 11 guys who have to play together in the scheme. If they’re doing that, it’s a good thing. If they’re not, it becomes tough to win.”

Iowa’s defense has taken the field with six different lineup combinations through eight games this season.

Injuries at defensive tackle and linebacker positions and an early-season shake-up in the secondary have combined to create inconsistency in personnel as the Hawkeyes have searched for solutions.

“All those things make it a more complex equation, you go from Algebra I to Calculus II. Those are the things you deal with and we’ve been through it before. Some years are easier than others. You work with what you have,” Ferentz said.

“The good news is guys are moving back to being healthy. Will that help us? I can’t guarantee it, but it’s not going to hurt us.”

Ferentz said the Hawkeyes won’t find a fix with a new front of going from a two-gap to a one-gap alignment.

“We’re just going to play defense and see what happens,” he said.

Defensive woes

How the Iowa defense ranks in the Big Ten:

Category Avg. Rank

Total defense 402 9

Rushing defense 164 8

Passing defense 239 12

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Scoring defense 23 9

Pass efficiency   139 9

Interceptions 6 8 

Sacks 12 9

Opp. first downs 22 10

Iowa items

- Jason White, the Hawkeye who was closest to the onside kick Minnesota recovered to set up its game-winning touchdown drive Saturday, said the kick return team was told to be alert to the possibility of an onside kick before taking the field.

“It was talked about the huddle, that we had to be prepared and be alert for it,” said White, a junior from Davenport North. “I knew when I saw the kicker approach the ball and the route he took that it was going to be an onside kick. I just couldn’t get there quick enough to recover it.”

Hawkeyes special teams coach Lester Erb is among the assistants who spend game days in the press box. Assistant coach Eric Johnson handles the huddles with the kick return unit before it takes the field.

- Keenan Davis is expected to return to action Saturday.

Coach Kirk Ferentz said the Hawkeyes’ second-leading receiver had been cleared to resume full workouts after sitting out last week’s game at Minnesota with an ankle sprain. Davis warmed up Saturday but was unable to cut the way he needed to, and the decision was made to withhold him from competition.

- Defensive tackle Tom Nardo and linebacker Anthony Hitchens have a chance to return to action this week. Nardo has missed the past three games, and Hitchens has been sidelined the last four games.