Leistikow's Final Thoughts: 'Jitters' slowed Noah Fant, passing game in Iowa's opening win

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central
Northern Illinois safety Trayshon Foster breaks up the pass to Iowa tight end Noah Fant on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa tight end Noah Fant felt like he should've been celebrating in the South end zone on the third play of Saturday's game.

But instead of a 67-yard touchdown, he had to deal with dropping a beautifully thrown deep ball from quarterback Nate Stanley.

On the next play, Iowa's punt was blocked.

It was quite a humbling start to the 2018 season before 67,510 fans at Kinnick Stadium.

"I’m still thinking about it now," Fant said in postgame interviews, when all was well after a 33-7 Hawkeye victory. "I feel like that was going to be a touchdown, 100 percent, in my eyes. ... I lost focus on it."

Fant wasn't alone. Three other receivers — Brandon Smith, Nick Easley and Ihmir Smith-Marsette — suffered first-half drops.

It was made clear in the offseason that this offense would revolve around Stanley’s proficiency in his second year as a starter. But he didn’t get the help he needed in a three-point first half that saw Iowa average just 4.0 yards per play. For the game, Stanley finished just 11-for-23 for 108 yards.

Yet Iowa survived those pass-game struggles anyway, which could be a silver lining from Saturday's win.

Iowa beat the favorites of the Mid-American Conference by 26 points with an offense that Fant and others said wasn't representative of what transpired during fall camp.

“We had some penalties in the first half and missed some throws," Stanley said. "We just missed some of those makeable plays.”

Fant chalked a lot of the first-half hiccups to "first-game jitters." He later secured Iowa's first of four touchdowns, on a fourth-and-goal pass from 1 in the third quarter.

“The first half," he said, "I don’t feel like exemplifies anything about our offense.”

A submission for Freezing Cold Takes ... anyone who wanted Parker Hesse out of the starting lineup.

The fifth-year senior was everywhere Saturday, a menace on Phil Parker's defense.

He played his natural spot at defensive end, but also lined up at defensive tackle — a 6-foot-3, 261-pound defensive tackle — on passing downs.

Hesse stormed through Northern Illinois' credible offensive line for two big sacks, and he was also about to crunch quarterback Marcus Childers when A.J. Epenesa forced a fumble late in the third quarter that Chauncey Golston recovered.

And we haven't even mentioned Anthony Nelson, perhaps the team's top defensive player who had a sack of his own Saturday.

For the day, Iowa had eight tackles for loss, including a fourth-quarter safety.

"It's definitely a credit to the depth that we have," Hesse said. "Having the ability to rotate guys and keeping fresh guys on the field."

We thought Iowa's defensive line would be a strength. And so far, we were right. And two top tackles, Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff, come off suspension next week.

The linebackers are a work in progress.

Amani Jones’ reign at middle linebacker didn’t last long. He was pulled in the first quarter after being caught out of position a few times, including on a 19-yard jaunt by Tre Harbison.

Jack Hockaday replaced him and was OK, but nobody is going to adequately replace Josey Jewell.

Nick Niemann was the best of the bunch. The outside linebacker’s bold charge through the NIU offensive line stuffed D.J. Brown for a 6-yard loss on fourth-and-2 in the first quarter. He later sniffed out a third-and-3 flare pass to force a punt.

Kristian Welch was a physical presence at weak-side linebacker. He whiffed on a tackle early and made mistakes, but he ended the day with 11 tackles (eight in the first half).

It’ll be interesting to see where Jones stands next week. He clearly was the star of the group during the offseason, but he didn’t put his best foot forward on game day.

"Amani, we think, is a really good football player and he'll be back at it," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "I thought the outside guys (Welch and Niemann) did a pretty good job, from what I could tell. Nothing major that hurt us at all."

Iowa junior defensive end Anthony Nelson holds up the progress of Northern Illinois quarterback Marcus Childers in the second quarter on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

Kyle Groeneweg is already an upgrade at punt returner.

The Hawkeyes’ inept punt-return game from a year ago has an encouraging solution. Groeneweg, a fifth-year senior transfer from Sioux Falls University, didn’t wow with stats Saturday (five returns, 42 yards), but he did successfully catch punts and show some ability to create positive plays — instead of letting the ball go or calling for a fair catch.

He’ll break one at some point this season.

"The role Kyle played today in returning punts was important and significant," Ferentz said. "So if we're doing that we got a chance."

Colten Rastetter was fantastic after earning the punting job.

The redshirt junior struggled mightily a year ago, but aside from getting his first punt blocked (not his fault), he rocketed four punts for a 53.8-yard average. His booming 69-yarder that rolled to the 1-yard-line set up the fourth-quarter safety.

It's one game in, but ... it was a very positive change from a year ago.

Seven true freshmen took the field Saturday.

None of them played major roles. Tyler Linderbaum (defensive tackle), Kaevon Merriweather (safety) and Julius Brents (cornerback) got to run with the second-team defense. Henry Geil (running back) got late-game carries; five for 13 yards. Dillon Doyle, Riley Moss and Nico Ragaini played on special teams.

Worth noting.

I'm a big fan of Iowa's three running backs.

And so is Ferentz.

The trio of Ivory Kelly-Martin, Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young combined to rush 36 times for 186 net yards.

"They're all really, really good guys," Ferentz said, "and I'm thrilled they're on our team."

My favorite running stat of the day? Of those three main backs, only one of those 36 carries went for negative yardage.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.b