Iowa football notebook: Benson, Campbell likely to split time at middle linebacker, Hawkeyes preparing for Clifford to start

Jack Campbell made his season debut against Minnesota after missing three games with mononucleosis.


Katie Goodale

Iowa Linebacker Seth Benson goes to block Northwestern Running Back Jesse Brown during the Iowa v Northwestern football game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. The Wildcats defeated the Hawkeyes 21-20.

Robert Read, Pregame Editor

Turning on the tape was all it took for Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz to realize Penn State’s record hasn’t reflected the team’s play this season.

The Nittany, a top-10 team in the nation to start the season, now sit at 0-4 heading into its matchup with the Hawkeyes at State College.

“Just doesn’t add up… When our guys look at the film, unless they are just delusional, they are seeing what we are seeing… a lot of good football players,” Ferentz said at his weekly video conference Tuesday. “Things are not quite just clicking yet and my guess is it’s going to at some point. I just hope it isn’t this Saturday.”

Iowa won’t know the quarterback it is going up against this week likely until Penn State’s first offensive series on Saturday.

Starter Sean Clifford was benched in the team’s loss to Nebraska last weekend. A player Iowa is familiar with came on in relief and managed to bring the Nittany Lions within a score — Will Levis.

Levis attended a recruiting camp in Iowa City while he was in high school, and the Hawkeyes were Levis’ first Power Five offer.

“He was interested and enamored until Penn State offered him,” Ferentz said. “That was the end of that relationship. I say that jokingly. He’s a first-class young man and that was a delight to get to know a little bit. We have very high regard for him back before his senior year in high school, so it comes as no surprise to us that he’s a player and Clifford is a good football player, too.

“We fully expect Clifford to start. If not, they are both good players and they are both capable of running and throwing and that makes them tough to defend.”

Benson, Campbell to split time at middle linebacker 

The last three games, Seth Benson made the first three starts of his Iowa career at middle linebacker. Against the Gophers in Week 4, the Hawkeyes had some depth back at the position, too.

The starter coming into the season, Jack Campbell, made his 2020 debut at the end of the first quarter against Minnesota.

Campbell was diagnosed with mononucleosis shortly before the start of the season and missed Iowa’s first three games. Benson missed Iowa’s opener with an injury, but the past three games made the most of his opportunity to start, totaling 28 tackles for a defense allowing just over 11 points the last three games.

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Benson and Campbell rotated every couple of defensive drives against Minnesota. That’s likely the plan again this week.

“We haven’t had that discussion yet, but Jack’s only a week plus into it now so it’s not like his conditioning base is all that good,” Ferentz said. “We would like to have him for the rest of the season, so we are going to try to be careful there plus he and Seth are playing really well. I would anticipate both of them playing.”

While both players covet the starting spot, there are advantages to them sharing playing time.

“When I was on the sideline, I was trying to act like I was out there, so then when he came off, I could give him what I saw, and then he would do the same thing for me,” Benson said. “It helps each of us out so we can play faster. It’s another set of eyes that knows exactly what we need to do.”

Hawkeyes keep interception streak alive

Safety Jack Koerner’s interception in the first quarter of Iowa’s victory at Minnesota marked the 11th game in a row that a Hawkeye has picked off a pass. Since 2017, Iowa’s 59 interceptions are the most in the FBS.

“I’d like to tell you we have a drill for it,” Ferentz said. “I’ve heard coaches talk about drills for turnovers and all that, different gimmicks and all that stuff, we don’t do that.

“But we do try to coach just good technique and fundamentals. And film study is a big part of it. A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time… Certainly pleased about it, but I don’t know if we have any magic potion or pixie dust or anything like that. Guys are doing a good job. Some guys, I’ll also say this, some guys just have a knack of doing things.”

Iowa has eight interceptions through four games this season. Koerner’s three picks are tied for the most in the conference

The gaudy interception numbers are as much about being opportunistic on the field as they are being prepared to be in the position to take advantage of other team’s mistakes.

“We’re in the film room pretty much all the time, especially as [defensive backs],” safety Kaevon Merriweather said. “Coach [Phil] Parker does a great job breaking down the opposing team, knowing what could potentially hurt us going into the game. Whatever we think could hurt us, we’re prepared for on the field. When we see something, we already instinctively react to it.”