Local connections help Iowa sneak toward pinnacle

David Goricki
The Detroit News

College football fans across the country expected defending national champion Ohio State to contend for a spot in the four-team playoffs and Michigan State from the Big Ten, too, but Iowa?

After all, why would anyone expect the Hawkeyes to be in the hunt for a national title after a mediocre season a year ago (7-6, 4-4)?

Well, the Hawkeyes have turned things around, putting themselves in the driver’s seat to be competing in one of the national semifinal games on New Year’s Eve. They are 11-0 for the first time in program history, ranked No. 3 and have the Big Ten’s West Division locked up for the right to play in the conference championship game Dec. 5 in Indianapolis.

But, first things first, and that’s a road game at Nebraska on Friday afternoon and the Cornhuskers (5-6) need a win to become bowl eligible and keep their season alive.

“At this point it’s all about where you want your team to be, what kind of destiny you want your team to have,” said Iowa’s 5-foot-11, 200-pound junior cornerback Desmond King, who leads the nation with eight interceptions. “We’re going up to Nebraska Friday and it’s going to be a tough battle. We know what kind of capabilities they have in beating Michigan State.

“And, I feel like after this game, if we end up getting this win, we’re going into the Big Ten championship game to show what kind of team we really are, what kind of ability that we have to play as a team. I’m really looking forward to playing the other side (East Division); hopefully it’s one of the Michigan teams. It would be a great battle.”

A win over Nebraska, then another in the Big Ten title game, and the Hawkeyes are off to either Arlington, Texas, and the Cotton Bowl or Miami and the Orange Bowl for the national playoffs on New Year’s Eve.

Iowa has made its improbable run with Michigan connections in defensive coordinator Phil Parker, a Michigan State All-Big Ten safety 30 years ago, and King, a three-star recruit coming out of Detroit East English who didn’t receive an offer from Michigan or Michigan State.

King’s eight interceptions is twice as many as any other player in the Big Ten and a big reason Iowa has gone from a minus-6 in the turnover ratio a year ago to a plus-11 this season. The Hawkeyes are ranked 16th nationally in total defense (322.5) and seventh in rushing defense (107.5), limiting opponents to an average of 3.4 yards per carry and seven rushing TDs, down from 4.4 and 19 rushing TDs a year ago.

“To make those plays, it’s all about preparation, watching film, practicing hard each and every day and just putting yourself in position to make plays,” King said. “For me, I feel like that’s showing leadership, showing my coaches trust me and believe in what kind of player that I am. I want to show them just how big of a leader I can be.”

Well, without a doubt, King is Iowa’s MVP — at least on defense —and could be the Hawkeyes’ top overall player, as well. Sure, C.J. Beathard (175-of-287, 2,257 yards, 13 TDs, 3 INTs) has played well in his first year as starting quarterback, and he’s featured on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated, but King also can get things done as a punt and kick returner.

In the Big Ten opener at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, King sent the 80,000-plus fans home in a bad mood after his second-quarter interception and 15-yard return gave Iowa’s offense a short field to work with at the Wisconsin 31. The Hawkeyes took advantage to score the game’s lone TD in a 10-6 win. He also had a third-quarter interception at the Iowa 11 to end a threat.

Two weeks later, King came up with a first-quarter interception at Northwestern, which led to a field goal, and the Hawkeyes went on to take a 16-0 lead before running away with a 40-10 rout of the Wildcats.

King made sure to give the home fans something to cheer about at Kinnick Stadium, as well, getting them out of their seats the following week in a 31-15 win over Maryland by returning an interception 88 yards for a score in the fourth quarter.

And things didn’t end there. Iowa traveled to Bloomington to face the Hoosiers, and King’s fourth-quarter interception at the Iowa 29 made sure the Hawkeyes escaped with a 35-27 win.

King didn’t come up with a pick in last week’s 40-20 win over Purdue in windy, cold conditions in Iowa City, but he did celebrate the West Division-clinching victory with 11 tackles (10 solos) and three pass breakups.

And King had high praise for Parker, who has been Iowa’s defensive coordinator for the past four years and the secondary coach for a dozen years before that.

“I feel like playing under coach Parker speaks for itself. I mean, you can see how our team is playing very tough, very physical and smart out there,” King said. “Coach Parker wants us to be the most physical team in the Big Ten, the toughest team out there at all times. I feel it shows how tough we’re playing with the turnovers, the fumbles caused, which helps our team out.”

Seventeen-year Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz had high praise Parker and for King.

“Phil obviously played at Michigan State and was a three-time All-Big Ten player and a tremendous competitor,” Ferentz said. “I always looked at him across the sidelines (as Iowa offensive line coach from 1981-89) and you could see he was a tough, hard-nosed safety who was going to have a great coaching career, and that’s exactly what he’s done.

“He’s been fantastic here, one of the best secondary coaches I’ve ever seen. He took over the coordinator’s job three years ago and has done a masterful job with that. He’s a really good teacher and technician.

“And, Desmond has just played super for us. We came up short in several areas last year, and one of those was the turnover-takeaway ratio and Desmond has, by far, been our leading ball-hawk guy on defense. He’s really worked hard and studied and put himself in good position to make plays.”

King was overlooked by most of the Big Ten coaches coming out of high school, where he played three years under Rod Oden at Detroit Crockett, then his senior year under Oden at East English Village Prep. He finished his career with a state-record 29 interceptions, also running for 2,360 yards and 33 touchowns as a senior. He had all the talent, but not the 4.4 speed and 6-foot-plus size coaches were looking for.

Oden is thrilled with King’s success and plans to attend the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis. He said he stays in contact with King, calling twice a week and texting other days. King frequently checks in on East English’s progress on the field.

“It warms my heart to watch him excel like he has because of all the hard work he’s put in,” Oden said. “His success on the field doesn’t surprise me at all, and he’d much rather have the team success and that Big Ten championship than any individual awards.

“He played his first three years at Crockett, then his senior year at East English, and Iowa was the only Big Ten school that offered and that came in January of his senior year. Coach Ferentz is a quality guy. I like him a lot. He’s a man of his word and that’s why I’m sending two more guys his way.”

East English defensive ends Cedric Lattimore and Chauncey Golston are Iowa commits.

Iowa also has Michigan connections in redshirt freshman backup quarterback Tyler Wiegers (Detroit Country Day) and freshman defensive back Michael Ojemudia (Farmington Hills Harrison), who are enjoying the tremendous ride to what could end up with a national championship game appearance Jan. 12 in Glendale, Arizona.