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IOWA CITY — Two of Iowa’s four touchdowns in Saturday’s 31-14 win against North Texas came from Hawkeye tight ends.
Both were interesting plays — but for very different reasons. The latter regained the lead for Iowa in the third quarter after being down 14-10 at halftime, and came on fourth down. Quarterback Nate Stanley found Noah Fant over the middle on fourth down, and Fant carried a Mean Green defender into the end zone while a second bounced off him.
“I didn't (realize the defender was still there),” Fant said. “My biggest focus was just to get across the goal line. I was within range and got in the end zone. Anything I can do.”
The former evened the score in the first quarter after a pair of Hawkeye touchdowns were called back — the first on a fumble, the second a penalty for early celebrating on Akrum Wadley.
Stanley was trying to find wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, but the ball was tipped near the line … and caught in the back of the end zone by T.J. Hockenson for his first career touchdown.
Hockenson, a talented basketball player in high school at Chariton, looked more like a rebounder than a receiver.
“I didn’t think about it (like that) right then, but it was probably something from (basketball), yeah,” Hockenson said through a laugh after the game.
While the wide receiver group has improved at a steady rate and had a greater impact than some anticipated heading into the season — it was widely panned the tight ends would be the best or only safety valve for Stanley — Fant and Hockenson have still had a large effect on the offense.
That’s been especially true in the run game, where Fant and Hockenson were pivotal Saturday. Both helped spring big runs from running backs on a formation in which they shifted into, essentially, a fullback spot and became lead blocker.
Hockenson’s role as a blocker is the bigger surprise, given he didn’t have that at all in high school. That skill has definitely been a learned one, he said.
“I’m a work in progress,” Hockenson said. “No, we always threw it up (in high school). I was covered by 5-4 guys; nothing like now. When I came here it was difficult (to learn blocking). I bought into what coaches were telling me, but I’m still a work in progress.”
Their contributions are vital for the Hawkeyes, in both facets of the game. Fant finished with two catches for 30 yards and the touchdown while Hockenson had three catches for 39 yards and his touchdown.
But to come through for the team requires them on the field, of course, and those touchdowns don’t happen if they’re not. Fant briefly saw those contributions limited in the second half with what he called a “shoulder stinger,” and Hockenson filled in as a blocker while he was out.
To ask Fant, though, the contributions won’t stop because of the time he missed Saturday. The sophomore brushed off any worry about the injury lingering.
“It was a little stinger, but I’ll be fine,” Fant said. “They strapped on a brace on it, put my pads back on and I was good to go from there.”
HOOKER STEPS IN
Last week against Iowa State, Michael Ojemudia stepped in for Manny Rugamba at cornerback on a coach’s decision, the defensive staff seeing a necessary change in performance. That happened again in the Iowa secondary on Saturday against North Texas, only this time it was Amani Hooker stepping in at safety in place of Jake Gervase.
Coach Kirk Ferentz said it was “just the change-up” following a 41-yard touchdown run by Mean Green running back Jeffery Wilson.
“We’ve felt good about the way Amani has been playing, so we kind of see all three guys pretty even right now, we may start a three-way rotation,” Ferentz said. “But we will play that by ear.”
For his part, Hooker didn’t anticipate going in Saturday at safety, expecting to play in dime and sub packages despite at both safety spots as well this week. The sophomore had to ease into the game just a bit, since it was unexpected, but adjusted quickly for three tackles.
“Obviously it was my first time at safety, so it was a little fast at first, but over time I got comfortable, and then it was just playing ball,” Hooker said.
WELCOME TO THE SHOW
Iowa got help again Saturday from true freshmen, and more than just running back Ivory Kelly-Martin, who had those two touchdowns in the second half.
Wide receiver Brandon Smith caught his first career pass, a 2-yarder on the right sideline in the second half from Nate Stanley. Smith didn’t see the field much, but joins Ihmir Smith-Marsette as freshmen wide receivers to hit the stat sheet this season.
But of note — both this week and Saturday — by Coach Kirk Ferentz was offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs. Ferentz said on his radio show this week Wirfs’ redshirt was off and to expect to see the Mount Vernon grad get snaps against North Texas. Ferentz was true to his word, as Wirfs played on field goal protection as well as played at right tackle in the fourth quarter.
Ferentz complimented the 2017 Gazette Athlete of the Year for his work.
“We threw Wirfs in there at the end and he didn’t jump offsides,” Ferentz said. “He looked like he blocked his guys. That’s a start for him. He’s in the Army now, so we’re rolling.”
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