Leistikow: 'Punting is winning' could apply to Iowa-Florida matchup
TAMPA, Fla. — Defensive ends Anthony and Matt Nelson were among the six Iowa football players given a special escort Wednesday to a Busch Gardens thrill ride called the Falcon’s Fury.
But neither Nelson could partake in what was billed as North America’s tallest freestanding drop tower, at 335 feet.
Sophomore Matt (6-foot-8, 282 pounds) and freshman Anthony (6-7, 253) were deemed too big to ride.
“It’s a 6-5 limit, and we both exceed that,” Matt Nelson explained. “That was the first we’d heard of it.”
The development, though, serves as a perfect football metaphor for Monday’s rugged Outback Bowl matchup between Iowa and Florida: Every inch counts.
“Every yard, every inch matters,” Matt Nelson said before heading off with his teammates to feed giraffes in mid-80s weather. “It’s going to be a fight, tooth and nail, for every yard.”
With two struggling offenses matching up against two salty defenses — in a game where first downs will be at a premium — even more attention will be given to each team’s kicking game.
It’s a point of emphasis for both programs, and it shows.
Iowa’s been really good in that department this year with punter Ron Coluzzi and kicker Keith Duncan.
Florida’s been even better, with Johnny Townsend and Eddy Pineiro.
Townsend’s numbers as Florida’s punter jump off the page.
The redshirt junior averages 48.05 per punt. That’s No. 1 in FBS and almost 2½ yards better than any punter in Florida history.
There’s more: Townsend has put 25 of his 60 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line and 28 of his kicks (46.7 percent) have traveled more than 50 yards.
How in the world was this guy not even a finalist for the Ray Guy Award?
“He flips field for us,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said simply.
No wonder Florida assembled a 6-2 record in Southeastern Conference play despite a ragged-on offense that ranks 115th out of 128 FBS teams.
“A lot of people don’t realize the hidden yardage in games that actually helps you win games,” McElwain said, “that gain you field position that don’t necessarily show up in the stats.”
"Preach," Kirk Ferentz would say.
The 18th-year Iowa coach has long emphasized the kicking game as a key difference-maker for a program that plays along a thin margin for error.
It’s no coincidence some of Iowa’s best teams were with Lou Groza Award winning kicker Nate Kaeding on the roster.
And it's been the case in Iowa piecing together a 6-3 Big Ten Conference record despite the nation's No. 120 offense.
Yards have to come from somewhere, and more often than not, quirky graduate transfer Coluzzi has provided them.
When you think back to the Michigan game, in particular — Iowa doesn’t pull that 14-13 upset without Coluzzi’s 54-yard, sideways-bouncing punt that set up Jaleel Johnson’s second-quarter safety.
“Ron Coluzzi’s been one of our unsung heroes, quite frankly,” Ferentz said. “If you go to us playing well down the stretch, special teams were a big, big part of that. The impact he had on field position was really big.”
RELATED: Iowa kickers quickly build bond
Behind Coluzzi and return man Desmond King, Iowa was plus-300 in yardage vs. its opponents on punt returns in 2016. That’s plus-25 yards a game for Iowa.
Florida counters Iowa's 13th-ranked punt-return average with dangerous return man Antonio Callaway, who extended the Gators streak of consecutive seasons with a kick-return touchdown to 12.
That said, neither team will probably return many kickoffs. Coluzzi’s been a touchback machine for Iowa.
So, too, is Florida’s Pineiro. And, well, he’s an amazing story in himself.
He was junior-college soccer player near Miami when his ASA College football team went searching for a placekicker. They discovered Pineiro, who soon thereafter became an Internet sensation by blasting a 77-yard field goal and posting the video on Twitter.
Now, he’s a cult hero among Gators fans, hitting 18 of 22 field goals, including 3-for-3 from over 50 yards.
Soak that all in, and realize that while this bowl game sponsored by a steakhouse lacks offensive sizzle, there’s a lot of juicy special-teams story lines.
"Punting is winning" — a quote made famous by coach Rick Neuheisel when he was at UCLA — actually could be the big story in this Iowa-Florida matchup.
And, it actually might be kind of cool to watch.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.