IOWA CITY, Ia. — Through five arduous months of rehabilitation, Brandon Snyder could only study football and dream about someday making a big play for his Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium.
Saturday was that day.
Snyder’s play was the biggest in a 45-16 Iowa triumph over Illinois that was much tenser than that score would suggest.
The Hawkeyes held a 17-13 lead midway through the third quarter, and the relentless Illini were driving again. New starting quarterback Jeff George Jr. led the visitors deep into Iowa territory, a hush overtaking the homecoming crowd of 69,894.
Snyder, a junior safety less than six months removed from ACL surgery, recognized the pass play that was coming. George didn’t recognize Snyder, throwing the ball behind his receiver and directly to him. Snyder caught it at the Iowa 11-yard line and had clear sailing down his jubilant sideline, reaching the end zone just ahead of the Illini.
“Five-and-a-half months is a lot of time to think about football. You’re just watching,” Snyder said afterward. “The pick-six was a play that they’ve run for the last year-and-a-half over and over again. I didn’t really do my job, but I kind of knew the play.”
It was the turning point of the game for Iowa (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten Conference). It was the sprint of a lifetime for Snyder.
“That’s what drove me to get back on the field every day — just picturing a moment like that in Kinnick,” said Snyder, who was a surprise starter for the first time this season after a remarkably quick recovery. “Making that play doesn’t happen if you don’t envision it, seeing it a thousand times.”
The Hawkeyes outscored Illinois (2-3, 0-2) 21-3 after Snyder’s 89-yard interception return, tied for sixth-longest in program history. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz called it “poetic justice” that his team got a much-needed win in large part because of a single play made by an athlete who was once feared to be lost for the season.
“We had stalled out. We were three-and-out two times in a row,” Ferentz said of his offense. “And it just seemed like that was the play we needed to pick us up a little bit. … (It) just seemed like that got us moving.”
Snyder’s pick-six wasn’t the only reason Iowa was able to snap a two-game losing streak and head into its bye week in good spirits.
Tailback Akrum Wadley had 115 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Quarterback Nate Stanley threw for 247 yards and three more touchdowns, giving him 15 on the season, while being sacked only once.
The Hawkeyes forced three other turnovers and surprised Illinois twice with special-teams trickery.
But Snyder, playing alongside sophomore strong safety Amani Hooker for much of the game, was the best Hawkeye story.
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The Larchwood native came to Iowa as a walk-on, turning down a scholarship at FCS power North Dakota State. He won a “team leader” award in 2014 while redshirting, so impressive was he in workouts and practice sessions. He won a “team hustle” award in 2015 while playing in all 14 games.
He got his scholarship and a starting job last offseason, responding with 85 tackles, three interceptions, forcing three fumbles and recovering two.
Then came the springtime injury and five months of trying times for Snyder. He stayed involved with his teammates as an unofficial coach, becoming the only junior named to the Hawkeyes’ leadership group. He pushed through his rehab, celebrating every milestone, from the first time he could do squats, to straight-line running to, eventually, being able to change directions.
That was a month ago, and Snyder knew then that he could make it back in time to salvage his junior season. By Saturday, he was good enough to be in the starting lineup and played every snap into the fourth quarter.
There was a first-quarter sequence that showed how healthy and determined Snyder was. He knifed into a big hole to make an ankle tackle on Illinois running back Reggie Corbin for no gain at the Hawkeye 11-yard line. He broke up the next pass attempt to Louis Dorsey. Illinois settled for a field goal.
“That was just a moment I wanted to show everybody I’m back,” Snyder said.
No one could miss Snyder — and Illinois couldn’t catch him — 90 minutes later when he was running the length of the field to the end zone, putting the past five months far in the rear-view mirror.
Snyder admitted that he spent the last 20 yards of his run looking at the crowd of Hawkeye fans in the end zone.
“I probably shouldn’t have been. I probably should have run faster,” he said.
“I was just trying to take in the moment, take in the stands and just how cool it is to be back in Kinnick Stadium and be healthy.”
Snyder said he would find tears in his eyes while watching his teammates swarm into Kinnick Stadium without him in the season’s first three home games. Running back onto the field in uniform Saturday, “I had goosebumps again,” he said.
The fans in the south end zone Saturday, the ones he was peering up at while scoring a touchdown, must have had the same feeling.
It was that kind of day — and play — for Snyder.