By Adam Hensley
Ah yes, the punting and the kicking. As simple as it may seem, Iowa’s special teams often become the difference maker in games — look no further than Iowa’s 17-10 loss to Michigan State in East Lansing on Sept. 30.
Iowa failed to start out with good field position for most of the game. All but one of Iowa’s drives in the first half ended in Hawkeye territory, so it’s not like the special teams are to blame for setting up Michigan State with solid position, but they sure didn’t help.
Colten Rastetter booted punts of 37 and 36 yards on Iowa’s first two attempts, but then went on to shank punts of 32 and 33 yards, both having come from inside Iowa’s own 10-yard line and setting Michigan State up with prime real estate.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz said that Iowa’s ineffectiveness in the punting game “didn’t make things any easier” in Iowa’s unproductive outing.
“Anytime you get a young punter, you’re going to have to ride the roller coaster a little bit,” he said following the loss.
That roller coaster has been a bit too rickety so far.
On the season, Rastetter and Ryan Gersonde’s 28 punts average less than 40 yards per punt (39.5 as a unit, 39.7 for Rastetter and 37.7 for Gersonde). Neither punter ranks in the Big Ten’s top-10 punting averages.
That’s not ideal.
Meanwhile, kicker Miguel Recinos has been consistent through six games. He’s made five of six field-goal attempts and has yet to miss a PAT. His field-goal accuracy (83.3 percent) ties for fourth-best in the Big Ten. One of his best plays — and arguably one of the best play calls of this season — came against Illinois.
Iowa had just scored on a pass from quarterback Nate Stanley to receiver Nick Easley. Illinois committed a personal foul, giving Recinos 15 extra yards to kick off the ball from the 50-yard line.
The Hawkeyes opted for an onside kick, and Recinos executed the call to perfection. Defensive back Matt Hankins recovered the kick, setting Iowa up at Illinois’ 37-yard line.
In the second quarter after Illinois took a 13-10 lead with fewer than three minutes remaining before halftime, Iowa’s offensive put together a decent drive but faced a fourth-and-5 from the Illinois 41. The Hawkeyes sent out Rastetter and Company for the punt, but a fake punt (a direct snap to safety Amani Hooker) resulted in an 18-yard run.
Iowa capitalized, scoring a touchdown to regain the lead with seconds remaining in the first half.
The return game hasn’t been anything spectacular, but it has gotten the job done. Defensive back Josh Jackson’s only major mistake this season while returning punts came against Michigan State, when he opted to return a punt deep in his own territory rather than let it bounce into the end zone, allowing precious seconds to dwindle off an already shrinking clock late in the game.
True freshman running back Ivory Kelly-Martin handles most of the kick-return duties. He’s taken 9 kick returns for 206 yards (22.9-yard average) and proven to be a reliable option.
Aside from shaky punting and a couple of excellent surprise plays, Iowa’s special teams hasn’t done much to sway its grade one way or the other.