Iowa Football

Iowa football Quick Slants: Austin Kelly fills in at fullback, O-line jells and more

Iowa fullback Austin Kelly scores a touchdown against Indiana at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Ind., earlier this season. (Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports)
Iowa fullback Austin Kelly scores a touchdown against Indiana at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Ind., earlier this season. (Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports)

IOWA CITY — Austin Kelly showed up Tuesday morning at Iowa’s weekly media interview session, per request from someone. It seemed to take one of the school’s sports information directors a minute or so to figure out why he was there.

Perhaps even who he was exactly.

Kelly is a fifth-year senior walk-on fullback from the Chicago area who has gotten his first important playing time the past two weeks. He started last week against Maryland and had the first two carries of his career, both producing first downs.

He caught a 4-yard touchdown pass the previous week against Indiana, after replacing injured starter Brady Ross. Kelly had one previous reception in his career.

“It was a good experience,” Kelly said. “Obviously, losing Brady for our offense is definitely not ideal. He’s a tremendous leader, (and) it’s really hard to replace a guy like that. But at the same time, I’m just going in and doing what my job is and helping this team win ballgames.”

Kelly ironically prepped at Amos Alonzo Stagg High School in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. The Hickory Hills, Ill., native ran for over 900 yards as a senior in a triple-option offense.

He came to Iowa as a fullback.

“Fullbacks, we’re always going in there and trying to hit linebackers. Trying to spring running backs open,” he said. “I didn’t really hear much from Iowa until February of my senior year. I had a coach that reached out to (assistant coach) Brian (Ferentz). It ended up working out, and the rest is history.

“I was looking forward to getting to a team that likes to get down and dirty, and that’s Iowa.”

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Opening holes, keeping the QB clean

Iowa’s offensive line has seemed to continue to jell as the season has progressed. The Hawkeyes rushed for a season-high 224 yards last Saturday against Maryland, while quarterback Nate Stanley had back-to-back 300-yard passing games the previous two weeks.

Iowa has allowed just six QB sacks this season, which ranks first in the Big Ten Conference.

“In the offseason, us seniors tried to focus on us being a more cohesive team,” said guard Dalton Ferguson. “We thought in years past, we were good, but we all weren’t best friends or we weren’t all hanging out with each other. So we made that a premium, and I think it’s paying off for us in the long run.”

Ferguson said all the linemen lifted weights together over the summer. What else did they do?

“Mostly just hang out and get food,” he said. “A classic linemen thing.”

A classic confrontation

This week’s game would seem to be one of those cliched “classic matchups.” Iowa leads the Big Ten in scoring defense (14.1 points per game) and rushing defense (79.6 yards per game) and is second in total defense (258.1). Penn State is the Big Ten’s second-highest scoring team (42.6), has the league’s second-best rushing offense (240.7) and the third-best yards average (480.6).

Iowa’s rushing defense actually is tied with Michigan State and ranks second nationally.

Penn State’s Trace McSorley surely is the best quarterback the Hawkeyes D has faced. He accounts for 287.9 yards per game as a dual-threat guy who leads Big Ten quarterbacks in rushing.

“He can beat you with his feet or his arm,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Boy, he’s a tremendous quarterback. He’s a winner.”

The little things

Iowa leads the nation in kickoff returns, averaging 30.89 yards per return. Ihmir Smith-Marsette has a 33.3-yard average on six returns. Kyle Groenweg (27.0) and Devonte Young (24.0) have the team’s other returns.

Continuing with the special teams theme, kicker Miguel Recinos is coming off a game in which he made a career-best three field goals. Punter Colton Rastetter ranks second in the Big Ten with a 43.6-yard average.

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Proficiency on third down

Iowa has been terrific on third down this season. It has converted 53 of 108 on that down, which is 49 percent. That’s 49.1 percent, to be exactly, which is 0.1 percent behind Big Ten leader Ohio State. Rutgers is last in third-down conversions (29.8 percent).

Captain crunches

Ferentz said this week’s captains, which will go out to midfield for the coin toss, are Stanley, center Keegan Render, defensive end Parker Hesse and and safety Jake Gervase.

Injury update

Ferentz said middle linebacker Jack Hockaday has been practicing this week and should be ready to play Saturday. Hockaday injured a knee three weeks ago against Minnesota and missed the last two weeks.

Ferentz said a couple of players got “nicks” against Maryland, but sounded optimistic about the overall general health of his team.

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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