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USATSI

Phil Parker's demeanor is as even as the landscape that surrounds him at Iowa. But if you want to get the slightest of eyebrow raises from the Hawkeyes' defensive coordinator, ask him about the frills surrounding defensive play these days.

Turnover chain? You might as well throw a stink bomb in the defensive meeting room.

"Things changed over the last 30, 40 years in the game of football in [terms of] honor and respecting the game," Parker told reporters this week. "I just wish our guys enjoy [turnovers] with themselves. To make it a thing for a show, it's really discouraging to me."

So maybe Parker -- age 58, part of Kirk Ferentz's original staff at Iowa 23 years ago -- won't be taking over the Miami defense any time soon. That's the Hurricanes' loss. In this case, tradition is good, especially when it comes to thievery.

Parker's defense is on an epic turnover binge. Iowa has created 16 takeaways through five games, leading the country. That's on pace for 38 in a full season, a mark no team has surpassed since 2014.

Following a strip search of Maryland last week (six interceptions, one fumble recovery), Iowa has converted those 16 turnovers into 75 points. The defense has directly contributed 20 points, scoring three touchdowns and a safety.

"Everyone knows that's the storyline in this game," said Penn State coach James Franklin of the Iowa turnover machine ahead of Saturday's battle at Kinnick Stadium. "That's the thing they're doing right now that makes them special. It impacts their entire team."

It's how the No. 3 Hawkeyes (5-0) got to this point. Just don't try to name them. To call Iowa no frills (and no names) would be boasting. It's that anonymous.

The Hawkeyes won 11 straight games with a quarterback named Spencer Petras who has quietly tied the best winning percentage by an Iowa starter in program history. They have a running back rotation full of hyphens (Ivory Kelly-Martin) and absolutely no hype (former walk-on fullback Monte Pottebaum).

They have a defensive Franklin called out in a manner only a college football hipster could understand.

"Zach VanValkenburg," Franklin said checking his notes. "Very, very much an Iowa defensive lineman name."

Never mind the senior is from Zeeland, Michigan. You come to Iowa City, Iowa, you become part of the brand.

That brand this week has a Ziploc-seal feel to it because of Parker's bunch. Iowa hosts No. 4 Penn State this week in a battle for Big Ten supremacy that could also be a Big Ten Championship Game preview and a College Football Playoff elimination game. Or maybe none of those.

The Big Ten is that deep, which means conference cannibalism at the top is possible, too.

But Franklin cut to the chase this week.

"[Turnovers] are going to be the story of the game," he reiterated.

Half of the Iowa's 12 interceptions came in last Friday's rout at Maryland; six different defenders grabbed the ball out of the air. Talk about on-brand. Sharing the wealth, glory and picks puts the (ball) hawk in Hawkeyes. The defense is on pace for 28 interceptions, the most since Nebraska picked off 32 balls in 2003.

Parker's ability to teach takeaways so consistently is one of the great mysteries of the football universe.

Historically, turnovers are the product of fortune. How to produce them is an inexact science. Coaches use creative, motivational labels like "Takeaway Tuesday" at their weekly practices. They slap at balls in drills. Then they cross their fingers.

Example: Only two teams in the country have gained fewer that Kentucky's three turnovers this season. Yet, last year, the Wildcats led the SEC with 22 takeaways.

"Turnovers are random and difficult to project by nature. The probability of an interception is often more a function of the opposing offense and quality of the quarterback, while forced and recovered fumbles are even more random," explained SportsLine senior data analyst Stephen Oh. "Compounding that is the fact that good teams with big leads often get more turnovers as opponents begin taking greater risks. That's why swings can be so great from week to week or season to season."

Iowa is the outlier. Since 2017, it has 76 interceptions, most in the nation. Its opponents have turned it over once every 32 snaps in that span. That defies the impact of usual roster -- and sometimes coaching staff -- turnover (no pun intended).

Continuity hasn't been much of a problem at Iowa. In his 23rd season, Ferentz is currently the longest-tenured coach in FBS at a single program.

Parker arrived with Ferentz in 1999 after spending 11 years as a defensive backs coach at Toledo. He had played and been a graduate assistant at Michigan State before moving to Toledo -- all under Nick Saban as he was passing through as defensive coordinator for the Spartans and taking over as the Rockets' coach.

That relationship explains some of the success. Saban was a feisty Kent State defensive back in the early 1970s who never got the position out of his blood, coaching the position at five different college and professional stops. There are those who will tell you to this day Saban might as well be the de facto secondary coach at Alabama while simultaneously leading a dynasty.

In 2012, Ferentz made Parker defensive coordinator. Today, he is viewed as one Ferentz's most loyal and accomplished coaching lieutenants. Parker has been there for it all. There was a seamless transition from Hayden Fry. Since 1979, Iowa is the only program with only two head coaches.

Last year, an external review found racial bias and bullying within the program. Former strength coach Chris Doyle left in disgrace. That was only 15 months ago.

In June, Parker became the first $1 million assistant in the state. The Iowa brand has continued to plow ahead through harvest season.

"I'm trying to find a kid who loves the game of football," Parker said. "When they get here, I'll tell them and I'll tell their parents, 'I'm not easy to play for because I expect a lot.' I'm going to be demanding."

Other than that, Parker becomes a coaching version of that Iowa landscape when asked about the takeaways: quiet, serene, no surprises as far as the eye can see. He speaks of "pattern matching" in the secondary, a common tactic. The big board of team goals in the meeting room includes getting at least three turnovers per game and not giving up more than two explosive plays (25+ yards).

"They have their eyes on the quarterback probably as much as any anybody in college football," Franklin said. "I also think the talent they have at defensive tackle and defensive end plays into that. They're able to get some hands on some balls. And it's recruiting. You want to recruit some playmakers."

Something has worked. Iowa is second nationally to defensive Godzilla Georgia in two important categories. It allows just 0.83 points per drive and 11.6 points per game.

"Still, the biggest thing is not letting people score," Parker deadpanned.

His defense might as well be a corn maze for opponents.

Defensive back Riley Moss leads the Big Ten with three interceptions. The Ankeny product leads the country in pick sixes (two), both achieved against Indiana in the opener. Junior linebacker Jack Campbell from Cedar Falls is having an All-America season with 46 tackles, including 18 against Colorado State and a scoop-and-score fumble return against Iowa State. Saturday will mark Campbell's seventh career start.

"I would not say they are simple," Franklin said. "You want to be careful because it's funny when you say some people describe them as simplistic. … To me, that's what the smartest people in the world do. They take complex things and are able to present them in a very clear and precise manner."

Whatever Parker has devised, it continues to defy football logic because of the longevity.

Just look at Washington State, which had 48 takeaways while going 10-3 in 2003.

"Essentially, 'the ball belongs to us' is the deal," said Robb Akey, Washington State's defensive coordinator that year. "If the ball is in the air, go up and get the damn thing. I do think that's a mindset. Creating the habit of punching and raking and stripping balls out is a big thing. That's where you can force a lot of those fumbles."

The Cougars then slipped to 29 takeaways in 2004.

The record for takeaways in a season is 57 by Tennessee in 1970. That team finished 11-1. Miami's 2001 national championship team had the best turnover margin in the last 30 years at +2.36. That group produced 38 NFL Draft picks.

"Some of the greatest [defenders] to ever play the game," said Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, who coached Miami's defensive backs that year. "In my secondary, I think I had six first-round draft picks. Pretty hard to screw those guys up."

Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has equated turnovers with victories. In his 30 games since taking over as Sooners, defensive coordinator, they have 36 takeaways. Oklahoma is 26-4 in those games. Saturday's 70-yard fumble return by LB Nick Bonitto was a school record.

A win probability metric based on turnovers was created by Darin Gardner of The Action Network. Utah led the country in that stat last year … but the Utes also finished 3-2. Like we said, turnovers are an inexact science.

"Turnovers are easily the hardest metric to predict from season to season," Oh said.

If you're interested, Parker and the Hawkeyes have their formula Ziploc'd and sealed.