116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa’s best chance to beat Penn State Saturday was to injure the Nittany Lions’ starting quarterback. It did.
It wasn’t targeting, wasn’t headhunting, wasn’t even a blindside. It was a legal and good football play by blitzing Hawkeye linebacker Jack Campbell on Penn State’s Sean Clifford.
That doesn’t diminish Iowa’s 23-20 win a bit. Every play, every action is meaningful in a game that tight. Campbell got to Clifford. Had Clifford not been left vulnerable, he likely would have proceeded to help the Nittany Lions bring the win home since his team was up 17-3 when he was hurt.
Many in these parts were immediately reminded of Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi’s injury against Northwestern in 2009 when the Hawkeyes entered that game with a 9-0 record. Had he not been hurt … but he was.
Football players get injured. Not just hurt. Injured. It is the Faustian bargain teams and their fans have long accepted. Maybe centuries from now people will wonder how this sport was ever deemed acceptable. Maybe not.
So the Hawkeyes march on, 6-0 and No. 2 in the nation. Everybody see that coming? As David Byrne of Talking Heads sang, “And you may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’ ”
Defense, yes, we know. Defense. You lead the nation in takeaways and turnover margin, you either have a winning team or the most fouled-up offense and special teams in captivity.
Speaking of special teams, you’ll have to assemble the nation’s best debate team to argue against the Hawkeyes currently having their best all-around special teams in program history.
There have been All-America individuals. Punter Reggie Roby. Kickers Nate Kaeding and Keith Duncan. Kick-returner Tim Dwight. But the across-the-board excellence of this year’s special teams may be unparalleled here.
Saturday, Iowa punter Tory Taylor was used nine times. He averaged 44.2 yards, which is very good but not earth-shattering. However, he landed six of those kicks inside the Penn State 20 and put just one in the end zone for a touchback.
The Nittany Lions started possessions at their 3-yard line or deeper. Terry Roberts made a great play to down Taylor’s first punt at the 2, and the Hawkeyes were ahead 3-0 less than two minutes later.
Ivory Kelly-Martin chased down a Taylor boot at the PSU 1 in the fourth quarter.
Hawkeye opponents have returned just 12 punts over six games, for a mere 2.9-yard average.
Fans were chanting “MVP!” at Taylor Saturday. Punting is winning? If you do it well and have high-level coverage, oh yeah.
Caleb Shudak was 3-for-3 in field goals Saturday, hitting from 34, 48 and 36 yards. Iowa needed every point.
Shudak never started before this season. He is 11 of 12 in field goals, and his missed 50-yarder at Iowa State was caused by Iowa’s only poor snap of the season. Of his 37 kickoffs, 22 have been touchbacks.
Charlie Jones didn’t get much of a chance to do much punt returning Saturday because Penn State punter Jordan Stout did a tremendous job himself. But Jones is averaging 10 yards per return, and you’d take that every week, every year.
What a half-season of accomplishments. The decision to make LeVar Woods Iowa’s special teams coordinator in 2017 is among Kirk Ferentz’s best in his 23 years as head coach. Woods has the right players in the right places doing the right things.
Special teams, Ferentz said Saturday, is “one thing I felt good about in August. There are a lot of things I didn't. But … we were veteran at those positions, those critical positions.”
Shudak is a sixth-year senior. He entered the NCAA’s transfer portal in November 2019, but pulled his toe back out of those waters. Now he’s using it to help win games.
"I know I said publicly we all felt like Shudak is a starter,“ Ferentz said. ”He and Keith (Duncan) were just so close. And he's 28 years old. He's teaching in the engineering school — I'm joking. He's still getting a master's. He may be teaching here eventually. So we all knew what he was.“
Shudak will be 24 next month. Taylor is a 24-year-old sophomore. You know what they are? They’re special.
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