Maybe it’s weird enough for young men to pound on each other for 3 1/2 hours for the right to carry off a pig trophy.
But Iowa’s 48-31 football win over Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium Saturday was weird on top of odd on top of unusual. A fake field goal with a tight end scoring a touchdown on a 4-yard run was as un-Iowa as hurricanes and avocado toast. Turning the ball over to give the opponent touchdown “drives” of 6 and 3 yards on the same day is about as un-Hawkeye as calling farmers and Nile Kinnick overrated.
That all paled in peculiar, however, to Iowa debuting a pair of first year freshmen cornerbacks in the starting lineup of the fifth game of a season.
But here was 18-year-old Julius Brents to replace Matt Hankins, who wasn’t quite fit to go Saturday because of a wrist injury, and 18-year-old Riley Moss to take the spot of Michael Ojemudia, who was dinged up, but did play some against the Gophers.
Moss and Brents had already burned their redshirts. Moss has been a special teams guy, and Brents had seen spot use in the secondary. But for both to start Saturday? Minnesota quarterback Zack Annexstad, also a first-year freshman, looked at Moss the way bulls look at bright red tablecloths.
“First quarter was a little rough,” Moss said in a transcript issued by Iowa’s sports information staff since first-year Iowa freshmen are kept hidden from reporters.
On Minnesota’s third possession, Annexstad lofted a pass to Chris Autman-Bell to get the Gophers from the Iowa 41 to the 7. It was single-coverage against Moss.
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Three plays later, Moss couldn’t stop Rashod Bateman from getting a 3-yard touchdown reception. That cut Minnesota’s deficit to 14-7 and stopped making the game look like a rout-in-progress.
But Moss endured. Prospered, in fact.
He intercepted a pass in the end zone late in the first half while going 1-on-1 with Autman-Bell. In the fourth quarter he got another pick, returning it 36 yards to set up a field goal that gave his team a three-score lead.
“Me and Julius, we sat in there and got used to it,” Moss said.
Indianapolis’ Brents also had an interception, early in the final quarter.
Three picks, two first-game starters, one game. Blastoff!
“Both of those guys got picked on a little bit,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said, “but they kept fighting and competing, and I thought they played better as the game went on.”
Iowa senior safety Jake Gervase roomed with Moss here Friday night. He said he pulled aside the freshman from Ankeny after Minnesota torched him and said “Hang in there. Just finish it next time.”
Amani Hooker, who went from being a safety to a safety/linebacker Saturday, insisted he had faith in the two rookies. He insisted they had shown a lot in practices since the start of training camp.
“When you make plays at practice, it’ll happen in the game,” Hooker said. “When you don’t make plays at practice, then it won’t happen in the game. It shows up.
“Josey Jewell would make plays at practice and do the same thing in games.”
Young players making plays wasn’t just a defensive thing. Sophomore wide receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith combined for eight catches, 146 yards and two touchdowns. Smith-Marsette had a 49-yard kickoff return.
Smith had a 26-yard sideline catch that may have been unlike anything you’ve seen from anyone wearing a Hawkeye uniform. He somehow wrapped up both defensive back Terell Smith and the football at the same time as he was tumbling to the turf.
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Iowa’s Smith said he has made catches like that in high school and in Iowa practices. You mean there could be more?
“Finally getting into the groove of the offense,” Smith said. “That feels really good.”
Freshmen cornerbacks fell from the sky and picked off passes. Smith-Marsette had a breakaway catch for a 60-yard TD. Smith made a grab Odell Beckham Jr., would have been proud to add to his collection.
The Hawkeyes did a bit of bumbling and stumbling here. But it was dwarfed by so much good and entertaining explosiveness. The kids are all right.
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