Hawkeyes defense responds to coach's challenge

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker set the standard for his unit long before players reported for preseason practice.

When Parker went on the booster speaking tour this summer, he trumpeted a defense in which he saw plenty of potential. Before Iowa's season opener Aug. 30, Parker reminded the defenders that he likes to be a man of his word.

"He was going to all these I-Clubs and talking us up," Hawkeyes defensive end Adrian Clayborn said. "He said either he's a dumb coach or he's seeing something in us."

Added linebacker Pat Angerer: "He was talking about how if we make him a liar, he's going to be pretty pissed off at us."

If the first three games are any indication, the Hawkeyes are safe from Parker's wrath. Iowa leads the nation in both scoring defense (2.67 ppg) and red-zone defense (0-for-3 chances converted).

The Hawkeyes already boast eight takeaways and have allowed just two field goals and no touchdowns. They also know they did the same thing last year, not allowing a touchdown until Week 4, and still finished a disappointing 6-6.

After three fairly easy home wins, the challenge gets much tougher Saturday at Pitt (ESPN2, noon ET).

"We really haven't done much yet," Angerer said. "We've got to keep rolling, stay confident, stay motivated."

Most of Iowa's questions entering the season applied to an offense that ranked 110th nationally in scoring in 2007. But the defense also had its share of uncertainty.

Other than defensive tackle mainstays Mitch King and Matt Kroul and outside linebacker A.J. Edds, Iowa didn't know what it had. Players like Clayborn, linebacker Jacody Coleman and free safety Brett Greenwood saw decent field time last fall but needed to take on much bigger roles.

Those players have blossomed along with some unknowns like Angerer (12 tackles, 2 INTs), cornerback Amari Spievey (INT, 3 pass breakups), safety Tyler Sash (14 tackles, INT, sack) and defensive tackle Karl Klug, who earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after recording nine tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble against Florida International.

"There aren't many positions outside of King, Kroul and Edds where we're fairly established," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "That has kept everybody sharp and has been a very healthy thing for our team overall."

Angerer was anything but healthy last fall, both physically and mentally. He caught mono in preseason camp and then suffered through a rash of injuries, including a pulled groin.

The 6-foot-1, 232-pound junior linebacker appeared in just four games, making one tackle. He endured plenty of why-me moments throughout a difficult season.

"I know a lot of guys probably have had a lot worse, but I was expecting to have a good year," Angerer said. "I just got real down and depressed. It affected me a lot. I didn't really go to class. I was stressed out with school and everything sort of piled up."

Angerer began to regroup in December, heading home to Bettendorf, Iowa, during the time usually reserved for bowl practice. Iowa's disappointing 6-6 finish meant no postseason, but Angerer benefited from the time away.

"Everybody else was probably pissed, but I went home and sort of remotivated myself," he said. "I came back better than ever. I don't take any day for granted, any practice. I'm probably one of the few guys that actually looks forward to going to practice. I'm having fun, and it's been a while since I had fun playing football."

He's not the only one enjoying himself. Clayborn appeared in all 12 games as a redshirt freshman last fall and recorded two sacks but struggled to play at top speed. Ends Bryan Mattison and Kenny Iwebema were penciled in for "90 snaps a game," so Clayborn had limited opportunities to improve.

This season he has claimed a starting job and leads Iowa with 21 tackles. Though King and Kroul are the clear-cut leaders up front, Clayborn is starting to sound like one.

"We want to be the bullies," he said. "We don't want to have to take the blows. We want to deliver the blows."

Iowa's offense absorbed plenty of blows last season and still lacks a clear-cut starting quarterback through three games, but running back Shonn Greene has emerged and several players are back in the fold, including wideout Andy Brodell.

The Hawkeyes already have scored 105 points after managing just 104 through the first six games last fall.

"It's great to come out on the field knowing that the offense just drove down and scored," Angerer said. "It gives you a sense of confidence."

Iowa carries that confidence into Heinz Field, where it will face Pitt star running back LeSean McCoy and his not-to-be-overlooked backup, LaRod Stephens-Howling.

"It's going to be a real big challenge for us," Angerer said. "This running back [McCoy], he's one of the best in the country, if not the best. From watching them play West Virginia last year, they really stuck it to 'em.

"We've got to stop them before they get started."