Zero tolerance

AMES – With all due respect to C.J. Beathard and the revamped Iowa offense, the most valuable players from Saturday’s come-from-behind victory over rival Iowa State rarely had the ball in their hands.

They spent the entire second half making sure the Cyclones didn’t much, either.

Hawkeye cornerbacks Desmond King and Greg Mabin were the lock-down defenders their team needed when it mattered most, as the visitors pitched a second-half shutout and pulled away for a 31-17 victory inside a sold-out Jack Trice Stadium.

Iowa’s offense was balanced and clutch behind Beathard, whose overall body of work was relatively brilliant in his initial road start. The defense had surrendered 234 yards and 17 points in the first half, though, and it needed to get better in a hurry for the Hawkeyes to have a puncher’s chance at a comeback.

Enter King, Mabin and their embattled crew.

The Cyclones picked up just four first downs and total 66 yards on 31 plays the rest of the way. Zero points. Five three-and-outs in seven possessions. Quarterback Sam Richardson, who torched the Iowa secondary for 186 yards on 12 of 15 passing before the intermission, was just 7 of 20 for 61 yards after that.

All of this coming against a talented group of ISU receivers – led by a future pro in Allen Lazard – and without injured star Drew Ott stabilizing things up front.

From his 34-yard punt return to give the Hawkeyes the ball at midfield and set up the go-ahead touchdown late to an interception of Richardson that officially sealed it moments later, the fourth quarter was dominated by King. Beathard will steal the headlines the way quarterbacks often do – and deservedly so to a certain degree – but King and the defense pushed Iowa across the finish line at crunch time after looking anything but ready to handle the heavy lifting early on.

Cornerbacks are often the pulse of the defensive unit, The position, by nature, singles itself out and shoulders a lot of responsibility, especially in the modern era of trying to solve pass-heavy offenses.

The Hawkeyes have been at their best when their corners are wreaking havoc. In 2002-04, it was Jovon Johnson and Antwan Allen. In 2009, Amari Spievey and Shaun Prater were the standouts. Talented players like Micah Hyde, Bradley Fletcher, Charles Godfrey and B.J. Lowery continued the tradition of excellence at the position.

King and Mabin look the part as generation next at Iowa. There are still plenty of inconsistent moments – which applies to the Hawks as a whole – but the upside is obvious and the maturity toward consistency seems to be coming.

Before Saturday, the last four games in this series were consecutively decided by six points or less. From 1993 through 2010, only four of the 18 matchups between the Hawkeyes and Cyclones had been that close.

For 57 of the 60 minutes in Ames, it looked like the streak of recent nailbiters would be extended to five. Instead, Iowa found a way to pull away. And for as much credit as Beathard, Jordan Canzeri, Matt VandeBerg and Riley McCarron deserve in that equation, the defense’s about-face became this victory’s biggest breakthrough.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net