IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The hope for Iowa was that a deep and talented defensive line would help mask its inexperience at linebacker and in the secondary.
A line can only do so much.
The back end of the Hawkeyes defense was exposed in last weekend's 31-23 win over FCS rival Northern Iowa. Quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen threw for 380 yards, and nearly half of that total came on three short throws to running back David Johnson over the middle.
Iowa (1-0) knows it'll have to get those glaring mistakes corrected as it prepares to host Ball State (1-0) on Saturday.
"It was probably the most displeasing part about the ballgame, giving up big plays, particularly in the passing game," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "If we're going to have a good defensive ball club we're going to have to eliminate those things."
It wasn't surprising to see Johnson play so well. Johnson is considered one of the best backs in the country regardless of classification, and last season he was 11th in the FCS with 1,679 all-purpose yards.
Still, the Hawkeyes made it way too easy for him.
Johnson took a short pass 53 yards on Northern Iowa's second play from scrimmage, and his 60-yard catch and run in the second quarter looked eerily similar. Johnson's third big play went for 70 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter and helped keep the Panthers in the game until their final possession.
New linebackers Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Bo Bower shouldered much of the blame for those lapses, but Ferentz described them as team-wide breakdowns. The game also marked the debut at free safety for Jordan Lomax, a converted cornerback still adapting to his new position.
"It was a good start for him. I think he's practiced well there, and the next step for him is just to be more comfortable being vocal," Ferentz said of Lomax. "It's kind of like being a linebacker or a center or a quarterback. You have to be involved in the communication aspect, and he's certainly capable of doing that. That will come with confidence."
But it wasn't all bad for the back seven.
Alston bounced back from his earlier mistakes with a key fourth quarter sack. Bower, a redshirt freshman who just recently earned a scholarship, had a key interception and the first sack of his career in the second half.
"It's stuff that's easily correctable. When you look back at the film, there's a lot of bad things. But there's a lot of good things. We try to look at the positives. It's pretty encouraging to see the good play by some of the young players like Bo Bower," Alston said.
The biggest positive for Iowa's defense in the opener was that its line more than lived up to its high expectations.
Tackle Carl Davis appeared to be unstoppable for stretches, and Louis Trinca-Pasat finished with 10 tackles, including three for losses. Drew Ott also got loose for a key sack, and the line helped hold Johnson to just 34 yards rushing.
If the Hawkeyes can get the back end of their defense to start playing like the front end, they've got a chance to be among the Big Ten's best again this season.
"That's good for us that at least, for the most part, we were able to do that. It obviously just makes the whole defense's job easier," Trinca-Pasat said of limiting Johnson's rushing yards. "Now we've just got to correct some things as far as the passing game goes."
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