The Heartland Trophy is back in Iowa City after a defense and special teams-led victory against Wisconsin. Only 146 total yards were needed to push Iowa to a 24-10 victory on Saturday, but much of their success came on the shoulders of Cooper DeJean. The true sophomore had a career day that included his second interception returned for a touchdown on the season. The DeJean-ious Hawkeyes make it 13-straight November victories, as the chase for a repeat Big Ten West title remains alive.
Iowa’s first quarter 7-3 lead came on the hands of a blocked punt at the Wisconsin 17-yard line. Deontae Craig got his hand up for the block and Jay Higgins jumped on the loose ball to give the Hawkeyes possession inside the red zone. Iowa proceeded to punch it into the end zone in two plays. Two possessions later, DeJean made a play. He undercut a pass to an out route and intercepted Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz. DeJean returned the interception 32 yards for a touchdown and gave the Hawkeyes a 14-3 lead late in the half. The interception was DeJean’s fourth on the season and his second that he took in for six.
DeJean’s day wouldn’t stop there. He also aided in downing a Tory Taylor punt inside the one-yard line. Iowa went on to force a punt on the ensuing Wisconsin possession. DeJean, who was also filling in for Arland Bruce IV at punt returner, took it 41 yards into the red zone. The offense went on to score following the punt return, putting the game out of reach. On four punt returns against Wisconsin, DeJean gathered 82 return yards for an average of 21 yards each. He finished with 10 total tackles on the defensive side of the ball.
DeJean’s speed and level of awareness on defense and special teams as a sophomore is impressive. It even makes the proposition for getting snaps on the other side of the ball seem realistic. DeJean has shown excellent field vision on multiple occasions returning interceptions. His ability to read offenses and close in on the football is unique and could very well translate to offense. Kirk Ferentz said after the game, “It’s just an unusual skillset if you will. Micah Hyde [is] probably the closest thing maybe we had.” The comparison to an all-time great Hawkeye defender says a lot about the sophomore from Ida Grove, Iowa. Hyde returned punts and played cornerback for the Hawkeyes from 2009-2012 before going on to the NFL, where he has been for 10 years as one of the league’s top safeties.
DeJean’s quick ascent to a top player on Phil Parker’s defense is not only significant for the short term, but it will continue to build the legacy of strong defenses in Iowa City going forward. Last year’s class of freshmen included Xavier Nwankpa, the former five-star and the nation’s top high school safety. Nwankpa has a similar, high upside potential to that of DeJean when he was recruited. DeJean’s impact on this team is already being seen in just his second season in the program. His presence will continue to be a factor through the remaining 2022 schedule, and for years to come.
Iowa’s last two games leading up to their victory against Wisconsin featured 33 and 24 points respectively, and an uptick in offensive production. Saturday’s win against the Badgers also saw 24 points, but the offensive production was not the catalyst. Instead, it was defense and special teams that set up the Hawkeyes in advantageous positions all day. The difference in the win this time was that the offense was able to capitalize in those spots.
The average starting field position for Iowa against the Badgers was their own 41-yard line. Other than DeJean’s pick-six, the three scoring drives began with the ball on the Wisconsin 17, the Wisconsin 18, and the Iowa 47-yard lines. The incredible advantage that produces for an offense is what can quickly translate to wins. However, prior to the current three-game win streak, Iowa was not able to consistently capitalize on those kinds of field position advantages.
At Illinois, Iowa got possession of the ball at the Illini 35 and the five-yard line on two possessions. They came away with just three points from those two short fields. At Ohio State, the defense gave them the lead with a fumble return for a score and did a lot of damage control in the first half. However, the offense struggled to get into Buckeye territory all afternoon. Going as far back as weeks one and two against South Dakota State and Iowa State, the Hawkeyes scored just 10 total offensive points despite starting their offensive possessions with the ball at their own 38.5-yard line on average.
DeJean-ious Hawkeyes continue November Success
Spencer Petras said it after last week’s game against the Boilermakers. “You guys [the media] had us dead two weeks ago… but that’s not what football is. Football is a week-to-week game.” He is right, the football season is a 12-game, four-month-long rollercoaster of highs and lows. The Hawkeyes have very notably seen both ends of that spectrum. The lows of the offense this year seemed almost insurmountable. Defensively, Iowa was doing its thing, but the points, and even the wins, were not following.
The combination of several factors was at the root of the issues early on and continued into the mid-season. With time and added game reps for younger players, things began to come together. Now, Iowa has strung together three consecutive wins. The Hawkeye defense is continuing to force mistakes on the opposition while giving up a mere 13.9 points per game. Iowa’s offense is doing a better job at taking advantage of the short fields granted by the defense and special teams, and the production is following.
With just two games left in the regular season, Iowa is bowl eligible and is sitting on the inside track to Indianapolis. The breakout stardom of DeJean in the Hawkeye secondary is taking this defense to even greater heights. Wins against Minnesota next week and Nebraska on Black Friday combined with one more Illinois loss would guarantee Iowa a seat on the conference championship Saturday for the second season in a row.