Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Trip Down Memory Lane: 2009's Suffocating Pass Defense

Note: This is a series I've decided to put together to get us through the long months until football kicks off. It could be a season, a game, or one play. Hell, it could be anything that stuck out to me at some point in time about Iowa sports. Either way, just enjoy this trip back in Hawkeye history.

2009 was a special season. Though, it almost started off a nightmare, as Iowa needed two blocked field goals to beat the Panthers of Northern Iowa. The Hawkeyes started off the season 9-0 and made it as high as number 4 in the BCS. However, dreams of an undefeated season, and even a possible national championship birth, were shattered when Corey Wootton sacked Ricky Stanzi in the endzone, rolling his ankle underneath him. The Hawkeyes were still able to finish 11-2, and finished the season with a BCS Bowl win. 

The team may have finished with only 2 losses, but it was far from a balanced team. This was a defensively dominating team, with a below average offense. Want to see just how unbalanced this team was? Let's take a look.

(What is this chart?)

The offense was below the Big 10 average in every category. You name it, they were not very good at it. The running game was especially terrible, as they were 32% below the Big 10 average in yards per carry and touchdowns per carry. The offense, however, did have some special moments.  Namely, the Indiana comeback on Halloween and Stanzi to McNutt to beat Michigan State. But, make no mistake, this team was led by the defense.

The only category in which Iowa was below average on defense in, was tackles for loss ("Getting in the Backfield" on the chart), as I discussed in this post. Their 8.65% of opponent plays ending in negative yardage, was a solid number, that would have been around the Big 10 average in most years. There just happened to be a lot of teams that were good at bringing down their opponents behind the line of scrimmage that year. Other than that, Iowa abused their opponents on the defensive side of the ball in 2009. 

They were 40% better than the Big 10 average at shutting down the run. 37% better than average at not letting their opponents score. In fact, they allowed only 13.08 defensive points per game (Points allowed by the defense only. Does not include touchdowns given up by offense or special teams), which was 9 points per game better than the Big 10 average. They even forced 17% more turnovers than average. 

In other words, this defense ate opponents alive. The special part of the 2009 defense, though, may have been their ability to shut down opposing teams' passing attacks. Which is what these six long-winded paragraphs were leading into.

When you think of pass defense, a lot of people think about defensive backs. Iowa had some good ones that year. Amari Spievey was Iowa's shut down corner, who got burned only once that year (first series of the Penn State game), but otherwise stuck to opposing wide receivers like glue. Iowa's second corner, was Sophomore (Senior this year) Shaun Prater. Opponents threw at Prater more than Spievey, but not because Prater was a bad corner (I mean he was starting as a Sophomore), but because teams didn't particularly like throwing to Spievey's side of the field. 

After the corner's, Iowa had two veteran Safeties in Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood. Between the two, they had 9 interceptions that year. If you add up the interceptions from these four players, you get 13 interceptions on the year. That is more than teams like Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Purdue were able to put up on the year. In fact, if you add up Michigan State (6) and Illinois (5), Iowa's corners and safeties had more interceptions than those two teams combined.

What really made this pass defense special, though, was the pass coverage abilities of their linebackers. Middle linebacker, Pat Angerer, could do it all. He could plug holes in the line to bottle up the run game, and he could also drop into coverage and seal off the middle of the field. He only came away with 1 interception during the 2009 season (he had 5 in 2008, however), but he was credited with 5 passes broken up, which was the most by any linebacker on the team. After Angerer, Iowa had probably the best LEO in the Kirk Ferentz tenure, in A.J. Edds. Edds was your prototypical LEO. Standing at 6'4" 244 lbs, the former high school tight end, could cover opposing teams' tight ends, and could hold his own in Iowa's zone against opposing wide receivers. Lastly, at weakside linebacker, Jeremiha Hunter, wasn't necessarily known for his pass coverage skills. However, the run-stuffing linebacker, did have 1 interception and 4 passes broken up in 2009.

The defensive line even got in on the action, breaking up 16 passes on the year. Adrian Clayborn had 2. Karl Klug had 5. But the star in knocking down opposing quarterback's passes was Broderick Binns, who finished the season with 9 pass break ups.

So, we've seen how good the parts that made up the whole of the defense were. We've also seen how good the defense was, overall. But, all we really know about the pass defense, is that they were 26% better than the average Big 10 team. What did they do to deserve that rating? Well, let's dig a little deeper and find out.

First, we'll take a look at yards per pass attempt allowed.

Iowa was only one of three teams to allow opposing quarterbacks to average less than 6 yards per pass attempt. Iowa and Ohio State were in a class by themselves in this category, and Iowa still allowed 0.16 yards per attempt less than the Buckeyes. The Big 10 average in this category was 6.82 yards per attempt, which means that Iowa was 24% better than the Big 10 average at limiting the opposition's yards through the air.

Next, we'll look at completion percentage allowed.

Once again, Iowa was number one in this statistic too. Penn State moved up to second place over Ohio State, but yet again, Iowa was all alone by itself. The Hawkeyes defense was the only Big 10 team to not allow the other team's quarterback to complete at least 50% of his passes. Iowa's 49.61% completion percentage allowed, was 13% better than the Big 10 average of 57.34%. 

So, what about touchdowns allowed through the air? 

Yup. First place. Iowa gave up 9 passing touchdowns, on 383 pass attempts in 2009. If you translate that into an average, that means teams that played the Hawkeyes in 2009, averaged a passing touchdown every 42.56 pass attempts. Iowa was 81% better than the Big 10 average of 23.46 pass attempts per touchdown allowed. Once again, Tressel's and Paterno's teams were the only defenses on Iowa's level in this category. But, Iowa was still almost a full play ahead of the Buckeyes in this category. Suck it, Ohio.

We've seen touchdowns. Now, let's take a look at how good Iowa was at taking the ball away from opposing quarterbacks.

Boo. Not first place. But, second place is still very good. Ohio State's 24 interceptions in 417 pass attempts, was about one play better than Iowa's 20 interceptions in 383 pass attempts. Iowa's average of 1 interception every 18.24 pass attempts was 36% better than the Big 10 average of 1 interception every 28.37 pass attempts.

Finally, a stat that attempts to take all of these into account (It's not perfect, but criticism aside): Quarterback Rating.

Back at number one! Woo! Iowa held opponents to a quarterback rating of 90.00 in 2009. Bitchmade. Iowa and Ohio State were the only two teams that kept opponents under 100 on the season. Also, Iowa's quarterback rating was 26% better than the Big 10 average of 121.67. 

We've seen that Iowa's pass defense was very good that year. But, where does this pass defense rank compared to previous Iowa pass defense's? This version of Norm Parker's defense was the best passing defense under his tutelage between 2003-2010 (Unfortunately, I didn't have stats for the seasons before 2003). In that time period, this pass defense was the number one Hawkeye defense in the following categories: yards per pass attempt allowed, quarterback rating, pass attempts per interception, and completion percentage. The 2009 team did finish second in pass attempts per touchdown, as the 2008 defense made opponents throw the ball 9 more times, on average, to get in the endzone.

So, there you have it. The 2009 pass defense chewed opposing quarterbacks up and spit them back out. Somehow, the quarterback with the highest quarterback rating against Iowa in 2009, was Northern Iowa's Pat Grace in the first game of the year. After allowing a quarterback rating of 128.90 in that game, Iowa went into shutdown mode. From Austin Arnaud in the second game of the season, to Josh Nesbitt in the Orange Bowl. Iowa harassed quarterbacks, and made rival teams' offensive coordinator's life a living hell. Which made it fitting that, in the last game of the year, to help bring home a BCS victory to Iowa City, this pass defense had their best opposing quarterback rating of the year: 11.20. Bitchmade.

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