IOWA CITY – Four words guide the entire Iowa football team into action today against Illinois – put out the fire.

It’s a phrase Hawkeye defenders embrace on a weekly basis, words strung together by longtime Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker whenever his players faced a sudden game-changing challenge.

For nearly two decades, those words have symbolized an opportunity for Hawkeye players to rise up and make a difference.

Today, they illustrate a chance for the team to put an end to Iowa’s first 0-2 start in the Big Ten in nine seasons.

The Hawkeyes’ 11 a.m. homecoming game against the Fighting Illini has suddenly fallen into the “must-win” category for Iowa after close, frustration-filled losses to Penn State and Michigan State during the first two weeks of the Big Ten season.

“If we want to meet our goals, every game from here on out is one we need to win,’’ running back Akrum Wadley said.

To accomplish that, the Hawkeyes will need to continue to “put out the fire.’’

It’s a phrase current defensive coordinator Phil Parker put to use twice last week when third-quarter turnovers by the Hawkeyes sent the Iowa defense onto the field at Spartan Stadium.

Iowa held both times, pitching a shutout in the second half of the 17-10 game to give the Hawkeyes a chance to rally.

“You’re going to be put in tough situations on defense,’’ end Parker Hesse said. “You’ll have a short field, something like that, but it’s never an excuse to give up points. Our job is to keep points off the board whether it’s field goals or touchdowns.’’

Translation – their job is to put out the fire.

“We all say it. Coach Parker will say it,’’ linebacker Ben Niemann said. “When we try to find him after a sudden change like that, he’ll give us a couple of words and we’ll all be in there, trying to put out the fire.’’

Coach Kirk Ferentz considers it one of the best in a long list of Norm-isms, phrases frequently turned by the legendary defensive coordinator.

“That’s one that really kind of says it all,’’ Ferentz said. “That is your job on defense. You can’t predict what is going to happen.’’

Iowa has thrived at extinguishing the challenges it has faced during a 3-2 start to the season.

The Hawkeyes don’t rank in the upper half of the Big Ten in defending the run or pass, but Iowa does rank in the upper half of the league in scoring defense in allowing 19.2 points per game and only three Big Ten defenses have held opponents to a worse third-down conversion rate than the 28.6-percent success rate of Hawkeye opponents.

“That’s our job, to come in and force the opponent to go three and out,’’ defensive tackle Nathan Bazata said. “That’s the goal anyway. When the offense is struggling, our job is to pick things up, put out the fire.’’

That’s the scenario the Hawkeyes face today as a team, trying to put an end to an uncommon start for Iowa in Big Ten play.

“We need to get back on track,’’ offensive lineman Boone Myers said. “We can’t let two losses turn into three and that starts by getting back to playing Iowa football. We haven’t been ourselves the past couple of weeks. We’ve got to get things turned around.’’

Translation – the Hawkeyes are looking to put out the fire.

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