IOWA CITY, Iowa - Kain Colter eluded several Hawkeyes during Saturday's final play. Northwestern's shifty quarterback bought himself time to find an open receiver or a hole to slide through. Neither one was available.
Iowa defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat recovered from initially being juked by Colter to sack him and preserve a 17-10 overtime victory. Iowa dropped the Wildcat senior six times, the most in a game for the team since 2008.
Much of the pregame discussion last week centered around stopping Colter, who shredded the Hawkeyes for 169 rushing yards and three touchdowns during a 28-17 win in 2012. Saturday, he ran for 60 (3.3) per carry.
Iowa continues to evolve defensively. The Hawkeyes are faster and better at containing quick quarterbacks than in past seasons. They're versatile in what they can present opposing offenses.
Coordinator Phil Parker unveiled the "Raider" package against Northwestern, where he switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 with speedy defensive end Nate Meier and linebacker Reggie Spearman flanking Trinca-Pasat with their hands off of the ground. They used it in third and long situations where, if things broke down, Colter could get loose. He didn't.
"No matter whether it's four down or three down, it helps to have guys that can run on the field," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We're a little faster certainly with that group. It helps. Seems like we play a lot of teams that have fleet-footed quarterbacks. That's just kind of college football right now."
Iowa opened the season at times using Meier and linebacker Quinton Alston at end in a 4-3 alignment against dual-threat Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch. He burned the Hawkeyes for 119 yards on the ground in '12, including a 73-yard touchdown. This season, he had 56 yards (2.5 per carry).
It helps that three senior linebackers - Christian Kirksey, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens - lead Iowa defensively. Alston, a redshirt junior, came in on the Raider package and has the coaches' confidence.
The Hawkeyes have become more athletic on the second level than they were five years ago. Kirksey can run with slot receivers where as those guys to often came free during the middle part of last decade (think Mike Klinkenborg on Phillip Bates at Iowa State in 2007).
In fact, Kirksey's versatility in being able to cover receivers and tight ends along with running to the ball is as important, if not more than, the roles of linebacker mates Morris and Hitchens, who garner more attention usually based on higher tackle numbers.
"I don't want to say linebacker heavy, but we have guys that we feel pretty comfortable with right now at that position," Ferentz said. "A little short on the D-line. It makes sense. (The Raider is) something we'll try to utilize the rest of the way if appropriate."
Iowa also can employ nickel and dime packages going forward. Jordan Lomax's continued healing helps that cause. Sean Draper can cover despite some struggles against Michigan State and Reese Fleming is coming around after being slowed by early-season injuries.
In addition to decent depth at linebacker and in the defensive backfield, the Hawkeyes front is improving under Reese Morgan and Eric Johnson. True sophomore end Drew Ott gets better each week. Mike Hardy, playing in place of injured senior Dominic Alvis, appears to have had the light go on as a redshirt junior. Trinca-Pasat and Carl Davis are consuming offensive linemen freeing others to make plays with help from Darian Cooper backing them up.
"It helps immensely," Ferentz said of his defensive line. "It's well-documented, last year we were young up front. We had two seniors that really hadn't played much. We had some injury issues. We paid a price. It was hard."
The challenge now presenting itself to the Hawkeye defense is closing up holes in the secondary. It's being asked to do more than in the past when they could sit back in zones and concentrate on protecting portions of the field and keeping everything in front of it. With Iowa blitzing more and with a focus on containing the edges against scrambling quarterbacks, the corners play more man coverage with a pass rush that can be inconsistent.
Colter couldn't find a way to consistently throw against the Hawkeyes and that has never been his forte. The two signal callers that beat Iowa this year - Lynch and MSU's Connor Cook - picked Iowa apart. Ohio State's Braxton Miller succeeded through the air and on land but he's a freak.
That's why this weekend's game against Wisconsin (11 a.m. CT, ABC) presents an interesting challenge for the new-look Iowa defense. Badger Quarterback Joel Stave can wing it. The sophomore is completing 63.5 percent of his passes with 1,486 yards and 13 touchdowns against six interceptions.
Receiver Jared Abbrederis provides Stave with what Ferentz called the best player in the Big Ten regardless of position. The senior comes into the week with 43 receptions for 752 yards and five touchdowns.
Despite losing by a touchdown at No. 4 Ohio State, Stave completed 20 of 34 passes for 295 yards and two scores against a tough Buckeye defense. Abbrederis caught 10 balls for 207 yards and a touchdown in that game.
While the Hawkeyes did well to stop Lynch on the ground, the Northern Illinois quarterback comfortably stood in the pocket and completed 25 of 41 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns in a 30-27 Huskies win. After completing only half of his passes for 135 yards at Notre Dame, Cook came to Kinnick in his second ever road start and led the Spartans to victory by connecting on 25 of 44 throws for 275 yards and two scores, again facing very little pressure from Iowa.
Iowa could play aggressively against Colter, who wasn't much of a threat to pass and was missing his best running back in Venric Mark. It used Morris to spy the Wildcat quarterback and that helped it pick up six sacks.
Wisconsin's two-headed running back monster of Melvin Gordon and James White requires the Hawkeyes to stay home or risk viewing them from the back as they race into the end zone. And, sell out on the jet sweep, Stave and Abbrederis could pick them apart.
Iowa's defense is progressing as the season advances. The versatility allows it to match up against the opponent's strengths. Now we'll see if it can stop a passing attack supported by one of the best rushing games in the country.