Defensive line crucial in Middle Tennessee win, wants more in Ann Arbor

With Iowa’s secondary still struggling with injuries, the role of the defensive line will be pivotal in the coming weeks.

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Shivansh Ahuja

Iowa defenders converge on MTSU quarterback Asher O'Hara during a football game between Iowa and Middle Tennessee State at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, September 28, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Blue Raiders, 48-3.

Pete Mills, Sports Reporter

Daviyon Nixon had a wide grin on his face following Iowa football’s 48-3 win over Middle Tennessee on Sept. 28. The first-year defensive lineman recorded the first sack of his career in the game, and the defense had one of its best performances of the season against a respectable Blue Raider offense.

The defense only racked up a total of 3 sacks in the first three games combined but reached the quarterback twice in its win over the Blue Raiders. And, surprisingly enough, it wasn’t the veteran big guys on the outside in Chauncey Golston or A.J. Epenesa, but was Nixon and fellow first-time sacker Cedrick Lattimore.

Though it was a runaway win for Iowa, it was pivotal that the defensive line put pressure on Middle Tennessee quarterback Asher O’Hara. O’Hara — both the leading rusher and leading passer for the Blue Raiders — moves in and out of the pocket well and provided a good challenge for the defensive unit over the weekend.

“It was like slow motion when [my sack] happened, to be honest,” Nixon said. “That quarterback is so elusive and so fast, [we were] just trying to track and keep him in the pocket. On that play, we were able to, and I was able to take it home for us.”

Quarterback pressure will be essential if Iowa wants any chance to take down Michigan on Saturday. Wolverine quarterback Shea Patterson has shown some weaknesses this year, especially in high-pressure situations. Patterson’s numbers on third down leave room for improvement; he is 11-for-24 with no touchdowns, 1 interception, and has been sacked four times in all third downs this season.

For some members of the defensive line, the game also presents a homecoming opportunity; Lattimore and Golston are both Michigan natives. But Golston said he’s not worried about the majestic atmosphere of Michigan Stadium and the revelry of playing in front of family. Instead, he’s dead-set on doing his job in the top-20 matchup.

“It’s another stadium,” Golston said. “That’s just how I’m approaching the game. That’s how I approach every game. I don’t want to put this higher than another game. You get the same preparation that everyone else gets. But it will be nice to play in front of a lot more of my family, because it’s at home.”

The role of this defensive line has been essential in these last few weeks, especially considering the injury situation in the secondary. At one point — in Iowa’s matchup with Iowa State — four different defensive backs had to sit out. Iowa gave up two huge pass plays in that game right over the heads of two young defensive backs, so containing explosive offense was a big emphasis coming into the matchup with Middle Tennessee.

Putting pressure on the quarterback gives the secondary room to breathe, and with the health of the defensive backs still unclear, the importance of the defensive line will continue to be important moving forward. Veteran defensive back Kaevon Merriweather could possibly make his return against Michigan, but the growth of the defensive line in this time has still been a welcome sight.

“And the other thing is we’re playing pretty clean football right now,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “…Defensively, not giving up the big play, which we were victimized by last time we were out there. All in all, really pleased. We got work to do and we’ll tend to that [this week]. Take a look at the film and see what we can do, but the whole key right now, whole focus is trying to improve week-to-week.”

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