To Matt Roth, it doesn?t matter if you?re a 300-pound offensive lineman, an All-America, a teammate or all three--he won?t let you push him around. So it was during one summer practice in 2002 when Roth, then a sophomore linebacker, squared off against junior Robert Gallery, the Hawkeyes? future all-world left tackle. ?He grabbed my face mask, so I gave him a shove,? Roth recalls. ?He shoved me back. Next thing I know I?m rolling on the ground with the 320-pounder. I had to grab on to something, so I ripped the face mask off his helmet, bolts and everything, and threw it.?
The outrageous has become routine for Roth, who in the last two years has developed into an all-conference defensive end with a mean streak. After moving from linebacker just before the 2002 season--?I hated dropping back in pass coverage,? Roth says. ?It?s finesse, and I?d rather hit someone on every play?--he has racked up 22 sacks, best in the Big Ten over that span. At 6'4" and 272 pounds, he?s not big for a defensive end, but he gets to the passer with an explosive first step and reckless abandon. In a 2002 win at Purdue, Roth was penalized 15 yards for blasting Boilermakers quarterback Kyle Orton three seconds after the play had been whistled dead. ?I didn?t hear the whistle,? Roth says. ?So I went to take his head off.?
?He plays on the edge, but that?s his personality,? coach Kirk Ferentz says. ?I don?t think we want to try to harness him.?
Ferentz, however, wouldn?t mind reining in some of the expectations for his team, which over the last two years was 21?5 but has only two starters back on offense. Following the magical Big Ten title season of 2002, last year?s 10?3 effort might have been just as impressive considering the Hawkeyes had lost 11 starters. This year Iowa will rely on its defense, led by Roth and junior linebackers Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge, which ranked seventh in the nation in fewest points allowed (16.2 per game) last year. It?s a unit, Roth believes, that Iowa could ride to its first national championship, just as LSU relied on its defense to win its share of the title last year. ?This is where we take our next step,? Roth says, ?and shoot for the top.? -- Gene Menez