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IOWA CITY — During the Big Ten teleconference on Tuesday, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said it probably wasn’t realistic to count on senior tight end George Kittle for Saturday’s game against No. 10 Wisconsin.
A couple of hours later, during his weekly news conference, Ferentz said, basically, “I said what?”
“I’ll tone that down a little bit,” Ferentz said. “I don’t want to be Dr. Doom here.”
College football doesn’t have the strict protocols that the NFL has when it comes to announcing injuries. If an NFL player is listed as “questionable,” it means it’s uncertain whether or not that player will play. “Doubtful” means it’s unlikely that player will see action in the game.
College doesn’t have that. College has “unrealistic probably,” “got a chance” and “Dr. Doom.”
The bottom line from Ferentz on Tuesday was no Hawkeye (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) has been ruled out for Saturday’s game against the Badgers (4-2, 1-2). It’s Tuesday, the day of the week when college football injury miracles can still happen or at least be sold.
“We came out of the game with some guys injured, and a lot of it is going to be day-by-day,” Ferentz said. “We’ll see how it goes during the course of the week. Really nobody ruled out yet, but we’ll have to wait and see how the guys look that way.”
Kittle is No. 1 on the “day-by-day,” “hopeful but doubtful” list, which also includes offensive tackles Cole Croston (ankle) and Boone Myers (ankle/foot).
Kittle suffered what looked to be a sprained foot in the Hawkeyes victory at Purdue. The injury was first believed to be a fracture, but that was ruled out at halftime. Kittle returned to the sidelines in full gear and came out of his stance twice and gave fellow tight end Peter Pekar a simulated block. He didn’t return to the game, and now he’s officially “hopeful but doubtful.”
“Since that time he’s had MRI (and) X-rays and the specialists have looked at it and said everything is good, so it depends on what he can do, how he can progress in the next couple days’ time,” Ferentz said. “We’re not going to rule him out, but it’s probably a long shot. Anytime a guy gets hurt, you’ve got to prepare like he’s not going to be there. But if he can play, we’ll play him. We’ve done that before. That’s not unheard of, if he can play. He’s got to be able to play effectively.”
Without Kittle, who is Iowa’s third-leading receiver (17 catches for 280 yards and two TDs) and one of its best run blockers, tight end will be Pekar, a junior walk-on, true freshman Noah Fant and probably Nate Wieting, a redshirt freshman walk-on.
The tight end group changes drastically without Kittle, and so you can kind of understand why Ferentz would leave the door open on a Tuesday afternoon when there’s absolutely no impetus for him to disclose a final answer ... that might not even be final with five days left before the game.
“We don’t know what his situation is right now, but hopefully, he’ll be out there this week,” quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “We’ve got other guys behind him who are ready to go. We have a ‘Next Man In’ mentality that we pride ourselves on. We did that last year and we’ve done it this year so far.”
Fant has seen his profile grow the last two weeks. After not seeing any action in three games, the 6-4, 225-pounder has caught passes in each of the last two games. Last week, he caught two of his three targeted passes and played a career-high 26 snaps. These numbers say he’s probably the top TE target this week if Kittle is unable to play.
“He’s a young guy and still is processing things,” Beathard said. “Sometimes, you’ve got to tell him a little bit extra on what he’s got on certain plays. He’s got athletic ability and he’s a matchup problem when he’s in there. He’s a really athletic guy and is improving as the weeks go on.”
Croston missed last week with an ankle injury. Myers left in the second half with a sprain on his lower right leg and didn’t return. Iowa has three tackles it’s comfortable with — Croston, Myers and Ike Boettger. After those three, maybe it’s junior Sean Welsh? Welsh did slide over and play some tackle last season and late last week. Beyond that, maybe it’s Levi Paulsen, a redshirt freshman who’s just started popping up on the depth chart. Ferentz hopes they don’t have to find out beyond the top three.
“We’ve got three guys who have played tackle, so far,” Ferentz said. “Hopefully, we can have two of the three. I’m not going to be greedy. If we can just get two of the three that would be a great starting point, not including Sean Welsh.”
Officially or unofficially, whichever way you want to look at it, Ferentz listed Croston and Myers as “hopefully but maybe.”
“I think we’ve got a chance with Cole and Boone,” Ferentz said. “We’ll have to see how the week goes. I think they’ve both got a shot. We’ll see where it is.”
Last season, Iowa’s offensive line played four different lineups in 14 games and that seemed as if it was a lot of change. This year, the Hawkeyes are on lineup No. 5 in seven games. The original starting lineup of Croston, Myers, James Daniels, Welsh and Boettger has started just three times. Boettger is the only one of the five who hasn’t missed time due to injury.
No one is blinking. There’s no time for that. The Badgers’ 3-4 defense is a different preparation for the Hawkeyes, who don’t see a lot of those. Wisconsin also is the best defense Iowa will have seen so far this season. The Badgers are second in the conference in rush defense (106.2 per game), third in scoring defense (15.2 points a game) and third in total defense (311.3 yards a game).
The Hawkeyes find themselves drawing on that uncertainty from last season. It’s kind of what you have to do when three of your starters on the offensive front can comfortably be listed as “hopeful but doubtful.”
“We kind of had to get used to that last year,” Boettger said. “So, this year with guys out, you never know what’s going to happen. We’re kind of taking it one snap at a time knowing anything could happen at anytime.
“You obviously want to keep the same five or six guys in there all year, but that’s just not really reality.”
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