Iowa’s James Ferentz, one of the Big Ten’s top centers, made an awful decision before encountering Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill last Saturday.
Ferentz extended verbal jabs toward Hill.
“He said something to me that got me more rattled up and lit a little fire under my butt before the game,” Hill said.
Only the powerful men standing on the Kinnick Stadium turf know the exact context of the conversation. Hill simply described the chatter as “football talk.”
The impact of the conversation provides advice Big Ten interior linemen might want to obey: Rankle Hill at your own discretion.
With his career reaching its waning stages, Hill is playing some of his best football. Prodded by Ferentz and a hostile Iowa crowd, Hill bulldozed his way through and around Iowa’s line as the Nittany Lions crunched the Hawkeyes 38-14 to move to 5-2 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten.
Some are calling the game one of Hill’s best at Penn State, a bold statement considering the senior has made a team-high 24 starts. Hill had nine tackles, including two for losses.
His signature play came midway through the second quarter as he curled past right guard Austin Blythe, slipped to his right knee, dropped a hand to maintain balance and dragged quarterback James Vandenberg down for a 9-yard loss.
On many snaps, the Hawkeyes double-teamed Hill. At one point in the third quarter, Ferentz and Blythe tried blocking Hill, allowing linebacker Michael Mauti to storm through the line to sack Vandenberg.
“Did you watch the game Saturday?” senior Michael Zordich said. “He was all over the field.”
The 6-foot-1, 292-pound Hill said the realization he’s in the fourth quarter of his career, the development of the players around him and defensive line coach Larry Johnson’s clever coaching are helping him raise his play. The season ends Nov. 24 against Wisconsin no matter how many Big Ten games Penn State wins. NCAA sanctions will prevent the Nittany Lions from appearing in the postseason.
Next up for Hill and his teammates: a Saturday night home game against undefeated Ohio State (8-0). Hill, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, considers the game the biggest of his career, so he’s peaking at the perfect time.
“I have been playing pretty good,” he said. “It says a lot about how our whole defensive line is playing. Without us playing together and getting off the ball and having Coach J coaching us, it would be impossible for any individual to have success.
“I just see the clock ticking more and more now. The season is coming to an end. We have five more games. We have more of a sense of an urgency.”
From moving multiple bodies on passing plays to chasing running backs from behind, Hill plays at a frantic pace, setting a tempo teammates follow.
Hill leads Penn State’s defensive line with 37 tackles. He even owns an interception, using his right hand to bat a ball down last month at Virginia. Hill juggled the ball in the air before corralling it with both hands.
“He’s going to continue to get better as he goes and that’s going to help our defense,” Mauti said. “We knew what kind of player he was all along. He creates havoc against our offensive line and it’s good to see him do that against some other people.”
Center Matt Stankiewitch can vouch for Mauti. Stankiewitch has spent the past four years blocking Hill. The practice tussles have turned both players into NFL prospects.
“I have gone against him more than any other person I have played football against,” Stankiewitch said. “It gets us ready for big games like this Saturday.”
Stankiewitch said Hill’s energy level separates him from other defensive linemen.
“The thing about Jordan is that his motor never stops,” Stankiewitch said. “You can be blocking him but you have to block him throughout the whole play because if you give up for a half second he’s quick enough to get by you and run down any running back in the country.”
Say the wrong thing, and Hill can run even faster.
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.