Who needs sexy?
In the early 2000s, head coach Kirk Ferentz seemed to go out of his way to explain that his suddenly successful Iowa Hawkeyes were effective, but NOT sexy.
Over a three-year stretch in which they claimed a Big Ten title, BCS appearance and three consecutive top-10 finishes, the Hawkeyes’ brand of unsexy was enthusiastically embraced as a blue-collar approach by a fanbase bursting with pride over the teams other descriptive nickname.
When the Hawkeyes scuffled through the next three years and took a troubling step backwards, the bully moniker vanished and the absence of sexiness seemed less blue collar and more predictable, stubborn, and outdated.
Over the years, Iowa’s defense has served as a microcosm for the way Iowa fans view the coaching staff because it is the unit which best displays the good and bad that accompanies a team devoid of sexiness.
This season’s Hawkeye defense is the best kind of unsexy.
Coming into the season, there were question marks at nearly every position on the defense, specifically the defensive line. For the Hawkeyes, a shaky defensive line is especially concerning—it is the D-line's responsibility to provide a sufficient amount of bullying ablity to counter the schematic lack of sexy stunts and blitzes.
The common denominator of Iowa’s most successful defenses in the Ferentz era has been the presence of NFL-level players on the defensive line. Whether it was Matt Roth and Jonathan Babineaux or Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard, the ability of a superior front-four to create havoc and penetrate the backfield allowed the Hawkeyes to thrive.
A look at the roster heading into the opening game of the season revealed a grand total of zero defensive players with anything slightly resembling NFL buzz.
However, the one thing the defense has shown under first-year coordinator Phil Parker is constant improvement. It started with halftime adjustments. Even in its losses, the Iowa defense gained steam as the games wore on, ultimately giving the team a chance.
Just as Justin Verlander’s fastball seems to gain velocity late in games, the Hawkeyes fly around the field at a more ferocious pace and play a sharp, opportunistic brand of football at the point when most teams begin to slow down and make fatigue-driven mistakes.
The Hawkeyes' defensive line has improved each week as the competition has started to heat up. If Iowa's early-season improvement was a house of cards, Michigan State appeared to be the team best suited to expose the remaining deficiencies up front.
But they didn’t.
Iowa was able to get increased pressure on the quarterback and meet perhaps the Big Ten’s toughest running back, Le’Veon Bell, in the backfield often enough to make him earn the yardage one assumes he is going to get by the time it’s all said and done.
As the defensive line has improved, Iowa’s linebackers—the strength of the defense and possibly the entire team—have flourished.
Junior Anthony Hitchens leads the nation in tackles, James Morris is a disruptive force and Christian Kirksey is steadily improving and emerging as a playmaking threat.
When it comes to predictions, the 2012 Hawkeyes are a difficult team to project with six games remaining due, in part, to the fact that the inconsistency of the Big Ten creates an environment where anyone can beat anyone on any given Saturday.
The only stone-cold lock is that there will be a typical sexiness deficiency on the defensive side of the ball for the Hawkeyes.
And I mean that in a good way.