CEDAR RAPIDS - The Cedar Rapids Titans and Sioux Falls Storm have met in the conference title game in each of the past four seasons.
If the Titans have any hope to make it five, they will need to dig out of an ever-increasing hole.
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1. From North Carolina to Iowa City to Kinnick Stadium
Arguably, the biggest surprise coming out of Iowa’s fall camp was the news that true freshman walk-on Keith Duncan had won the field goal spot. It might be more accurate to put it this way: The Weddington, N.C., native has won the opportunity to be the first kicker Iowa tries this season.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz expressed confidence and said he expects Duncan to carry this. He also said they need to see what happens (Duncan needs to consistently make kicks) and Iowa might use a different kicker for long field goals.
That will play out. For now, how the heck did Iowa find a kicker from North Carolina? Here’s that game of life and happenstance:
— The Duncan family moved from Texas to Weddington four days before Keith’s freshman year at Weddington High School. Within 24 hours, Duncan was enrolled in Weddington and on a bus to his first high school football game (he had kicked in one competitive game up to this moment).
— The starting kicker at Weddington was Alex Schuster, who’s now the kicker at Pitt. He introduced the Duncans to kicking coach Dan Orner. Schuster suffered an injury in that camp and, ka-boom, Duncan was named the starting varsity kicker as a freshman.
— Duncan had a terrific high school career and earned interest from southeastern schools. He received offers from four FCS schools. Duncan has a keen interest in forensic and biomedical sciences and, with that in mind, he committed to Furman.
Then in January, Iowa assistant coach Seth Wallace called.
— The Charlotte, N.C., area has a large Iowa alumni base. The Duncans had a lot of resources in the area, including a few neighbors, to gather info on the Iowa program. Keith’s grandfather also lived in Des Moines for years.
With all of that solid feedback, the family jumped into the car and made the 1,000-mile trip.
— The Duncans met Wallace, Ferentz, assistant coach Chris White (who coaches kickers/punters) and Dr. Liz Tovar, a faculty rep. Keith learned about Iowa’s biomedical science program and other science programs. The decision was easy and Iowa had a legit kicking prospect.
— The family didn’t learn until they talked with Iowa coaches that it was former Hawkeye kicker/punter Jason Baker who suggested the staff give Duncan a look. Baker was an all-Big Ten punter for the Hawkeyes in 1999-2000. He punted for 11 seasons in the NFL, including his final six years for the Carolina Panthers.
Baker noticed Duncan’s career in local media coverage and made the call to the Hawkeyes staff. Without Baker’s recommendation, this never happens. The Duncans still haven’t met Baker and would love to thank him.
2. Hello, Niemann
Let’s rewind a little bit on outside linebacker Ben Neimann’s last 10 months in an Iowa uniform.
— Niemann suffered a concussion in the first half of the season finale against Nebraska and needed help getting off the field. He passed concussion protocol and had limited practice reps going into the Big Ten Championship game, but still played the entire game.
— Niemann played the first series of the Rose Bowl, but had to leave the game with an ankle injury and wasn’t able to return.
— The 6-3, 230-pound junior worked through an injured shoulder all during the 2015 season. He finally had it operated on in January and missed spring practice.
— During the open scrimmage on Aug. 13, Niemann sat out with a hamstring injury. He did, however, return to practice that next Monday.
Yes, he’s been out a lot. And, yes, he wants to push past that and begin anew Saturday.
“I kind of want to get rid of the injury bug and go,” Niemann said. “It’s been rough missing games.”
Also in the last 10 months, Niemann’s dad, Jay, was hired away from Northern Illinois to become Rutgers defensive coordinator. Iowa travels to Piscataway, N.J., on Sept. 24.
“I was hoping that really wouldn’t happen,” Niemann said. “I knew it could. Once he took the job, I figured out they were on the schedule. Just have to deal with it. We kind of talked some smack to each other and still do once in a while, but I’m happy for him that he’s there. Once game week comes, I don’t really know how that will be handled.”
And also in the last 10 months, Ben’s brother, Nick, joined him as a Hawkeye. Nick Niemann signed with Iowa in February and is a true freshman outside linebacker.
3. Testing your B1G love this week ...
Lots and lots of college football media are calling this the greatest opening weekend in history.
Well, outside of Wisconsin and LSU hooking up at Lambeau Field, the Big Ten didn’t get that memo. (Let’s give Rutgers, which is off to much-improved Washington, and Nebraska, playing host to sometimes-interesting Fresno State, some credit, too.)
Test your Big Ten love with these three:
Howard at Maryland (11 a.m. Big Ten Network) — Howard finished 1-10 last year. The school’s website has this week a post on its website headlined: “Football tryouts.” Not kidding.
Eastern Kentucky at Purdue (11 a.m. ESPN News) — Oh man, the ESPN News blast in week 1. Ouch.
Murray State at Illinois (2:30 BTN) — Lovie Smith’s regime should push away from the shore with a victory. Murray allowed 50-plus points in losses to Western Michigan and Northern Illinois last season.
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