IOWA CITY | Steadily, Iowa’s “junkyard dogs’’ are developing a little bite to go with their bark.
A defensive line which started the season with little returning experience is gaining consistency as the Hawkeyes work toward the heart of their Big Ten schedule.
“We’re making progress,’’ junior end Dominic Alvis said. “We’re a bunch of junkyard dogs that nobody wanted, but we’ve been through a lot together, waiting our turn, and we’re not letting the opportunity pass us by.’’
Alvis’ story is shared by the other three players who fill lineup spots on the Hawkeyes’ defensive front.
Seniors Joe Gaglione at end and Steve Bigach at tackle found themselves on the depth chart behind a collection of six defensive linemen who have played their way to the NFL over the past two seasons.
Sophomore Louis Trinca-Pasat, an outside linebacker as a prep in the Chicago Public League, watched and learned the past two seasons after quickly being moved to the defensive line when he arrived at Iowa.
None were particularly heavily recruited.
A couple of them have dealt with injuries which set them back during their initial years at Iowa.
“A year ago, nobody knew our names,’’ Bigach said. “It’s easy to understand why people had questions. We had questions. We were playing behind guys who are playing on Sundays now, but we didn’t let that time go to waste. We all kept working and eventually, we got our opportunity.’’
Now, they are turning that opportunity into results.
The Hawkeyes enter Saturday’s 7 p.m. game against Penn State with a rush defense which ranks fourth in the Big Ten, trailing Michigan State, Northwestern and Wisconsin while limiting opponents to 117.3 yards per game on the ground.
They have also helped Iowa rank third in the Big Ten in scoring defense, fourth in total defense and fifth in pass defense.
“We still feel like we have a lot of work to do,’’ Gaglione said. “We’re getting better and we’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go. We see that every Sunday when we watch film.’’
Reese Morgan moved into the role of defensive line coach last spring after coaching the Hawkeyes’ offensive line for the past nine years.
Coach Kirk Ferentz said Morgan has provided the group with solid coaching, but credits the players with the execution he sees each week.
“The secret to it all more than anything is the players, how they accept challenges, and these guys are doing a really great job,’’ Ferentz said.
“It’s fitting that Louis got a fingertip on that ball (that Greg Castillo intercepted to end the game), because he plays a position that’s kind of hidden and involves a lot of grunt work. He didn’t get the pick, but he got a finger on it.’’
Trinca-Pasat, who nearly walked away from the sport in early December a year ago, appreciates that chance as much as anything.
“I’m sure I was like a lot of young guys. You work, but you don’t get the time on the field right away and that’s tough,’’ Trinca-Pasat said.
“I needed to step back and think things through and decide if I really wanted to be here. The coaches gave me that time, and with how young we are on the defensive line, I knew I had an opportunity in front of me.’’
Ferentz appreciates the growth he has seen from the group. In particular, he likes the fact that as seniors Gaglione and Bigach are reaping rewards for their dedication to the program over time.
“They’re guys who have been so committed to the whole team,’’ Ferentz said. “It’s neat to see them do what they’re doing.’’
That’s taken time.
“In the Minnesota game, you could feel things going well as the game went on. It was the first time that things came together for most of the game,’’ Gaglione said, referring to an effort which limited the Golden Gophers to 102 rushing yards.
“They were 4-0, a quality opponent, and to play the way we did against them, it gave us the confidence that we can compete in the Big Ten. We still have work to do, but the last two games have told us we’re on the right path.’’