Howe: Special Teams Rebound Helps Hawkeyes Take Out Minnesota

October 6, 2018

Written by Rob Howe

MINNEAPOLIS – Two weeks ago, Iowa’s special teams let it down in a heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin. Saturday, the Hawkeyes needed them to pull through in a weird and wild game against another rival, Minnesota.

The game produced plenty of teaching moments for the coaches. As much as a win can be called ugly, this 48-31 decision here at TCF Bank Stadium bordered on the bizarre.

Fortunately for the visitors, a big kick return my Ihmir Smith-Marsette, timely punts by Colten Rastetter, field goals and deep kickoffs from Miguel Recinos, and turning a crafty fake field goal into a touchdown proved critical on a day with inconsistency in the other two phases.

“I think there was a lot of emphasis put on the special teams the last two weeks and they did a great job. I think everybody took what happened two weeks ago on their own shoulders and really decided to lock in. They did a great job today,” quarterback Nate Stanley said.

It wasn’t all special teams. The Hawkeye offense totaled 420 yards with Stanley throwing for 314 and four touchdowns. While the defense gave up 320, it picked off four passes and sacked the quarterback five times.

Each time one of those phases slipped, however, it seemed like the special teams were there to pick it up.

The Hawkeyes jumped out to a 14-0 lead on the strength of two Stanley scoring tosses, the first to tight end T.J. Hockenson and the next to Smith-Marsette. The Golden Gophers settled down at that point and cut their deficit in half at the end of the first quarter.

Early in the second, Iowa drove down the field before stalling at the home team’s four-yard line. The Hawkeyes trotted the field goal unit out onto the field. They reached into their bag of tricks.

Given the right look by Minnesota, they lined up with Rastetter appearing ready to take the snap. Instead, long snapper Jackson Subbert tossed the ball to Hockenson to his right. Aided by a nice block from Sam Brincks, the tight end race into the end zone, giving the visitors a 21-7 lead with about six minutes left in the first half.

Last year, Iowa ran a fake where it passed to long snapper Tyler Kluver against Ohio State. It was called the Polecat. This one has been dubbed Herky.

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Iowa would extend its lead to 28-10 on a 21-yard scoring strike from Stanley to Nick Easley with 1:35 left before the intermission. It then got the ball back following an interception by cornerback Riley Moss.

With 1:12 on the clock, Stanley inexplicably threw into a pack of Gophers and was intercepted. Minnesota scored a touchdown and had momentum going into the locker room although still down 28-17.

Midway through the third quarter, Stanley fumbled under pressure, setting up the opposition at the Iowa three. It scored two plays later, cutting the Hawkeye lead to 31-24 with 8:12 remaining in the third.

Smith-Marsette then returned the ensuing kickoff 49 yards to his own 49-yard line. Iowa would go on to score a touchdown on that drive and stayed ahead by at least 10 points the rest of the way.

“I’m always thinking big play when I go back there,” Smith-Marsette said.

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The Hawkeyes played the field position game from there. Whenever the Gophers got a stop, Rastetter made sure to pin them back. He averaged 41.5 yards on four punts and pinned the home team inside its own 20 twice. It started its two fourth-quarter drives following punts at at its own 25 and 17.

Meanwhile, Recinos knocked his two field goal tries through the uprights, including a 40-yarder. He kicked off nine times with a 50.9-yard average and three touchbacks. The Gophers averaged 16.0 yards per return. Iowa’s coverage teams performed well.

It was a needed step forward for the special teams after two punt-return team turnovers cost them in a 28-17 loss against the Badgers two weeks ago. They worked hard on them during the bye.

“I think special teams factored in the right way,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s going to take that for us moving forward in conference play.”

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The “next man in” mantra of the Hawkeyes also came into play on Saturday. Moss and fellow true freshman cornerback Julius Brents started their first ever college games. They were picked on early and gave up some big plays, but they improved as the game went on and ended up with three picks. They replaced injured starters Michael Ojemudia and Matt Hankins, both of whom were cleared to play this week.

Starting middle linebacker Jack Hockaday went down with a leg injury late in the second quarter and did not return. Ferentz said the senior’s prognoses for next week’s game at Indiana did not look good. He left the field on crutches.

Amani Jones, who was the starting middle linebacker for the season opener, replaced Hockaday. He played well up until being flagged for targeting late in the game. That will cost him the first half of next week’s game.

Iowa already was down a linebacker coming into the week. Outside man Nick Neimann hurt himself against Wisconsin. Iowa chose a nickel package with an extra safety (Geno Stone) to start the game, moving another safety, Amani Hooker, down into the box.

Defensive end Anthony Nelson and the rest of the defensive line made life difficult enough on Minnesota with the injuries on tho levels behind them. Nelson recorded three sacks.

While it was a far from perfect day, Iowa still won by 17 points in its first game of the year. It played the complementary football for which it strives. And it received what it needed from a special teams’ outfit that took its fair share of criticism the last two weeks.

“We worked hard on special teams over the break,” Smith-Marsette said. “It was just a matter of going out there and executing in the areas we worked on. It was big.”

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