Leistikow's Final Thoughts: No shortage of motivation for Hawkeyes on Penn State week
IOWA CITY, Ia. — A little extra motivation can’t hurt going into a big game.
Geno Stone certainly has some entering No. 18 Iowa's 2:30 p.m. Saturday matchup at No. 16 Penn State.
Stone wanted to be a Nittany Lion. He said he went on nine unofficial visits to Penn State (his “dream school,” he said Tuesday) during his senior year of high school in New Castle, Pennsylvania — about a three-hour drive from State College.
“They were talking to me, telling me that I was a guy that I wanted,” Stone said. “They told me, my senior year, they were going to make an offer to me in the (coming) weeks.”
“They never offered,” he said. “It kind of hurt me. It is what it is.”
He wound up committing to Iowa late in the recruiting process, and now the sophomore safety could be playing a prominent role against Penn State. Stone said he’s attended a double-digit number of games at Beaver Stadium, but obviously he’s never played there.
With the Nittany Lions deploying frequent three-wide receiver sets, look for Stone to be inserted at strong safety with Amani Hooker sliding down to outside linebacker. That was the strategy Iowa used effectively against Minnesota and Indiana. Stone had an interception in each of those blowout road wins.
“Last year, I thought about (the recruiting snub) a lot and played one of my best games as a freshman on special teams,” Stone said of Iowa’s 21-19 loss to Penn State at Kinnick Stadium. “This year, I’m just trying to build on (that).”
So, keep an eye on Iowa’s No. 9 on Saturday. And know that if he can make a big play against Trace McSorley, it’ll personally mean a lot.
What a difference an offseason makes. Colten Rastetter’s punting average of 37.8 yards ranked 106th out of 107 qualified FBS players on 2017. This season, his average of 43.6 per kick not only marks a 15 percent improvement but ranks fourth in the Big Ten Conference.
It’s one of the best stories of many developing on this 2018 Hawkeye team.
“I wasn't ready to sign off on Colten going into the season,” head coach Kirk Ferentz admitted after Iowa’s 23-0 shutout against Maryland, in which Rastetter’s two punts averaged 46.5 yards on a terribly windy day to kick. “I didn't know what was going to happen. I know he's been working hard at it, and I think his hard work is really showing on the field right now.”
Credit a sports psychologist for some of the progress. Rastetter, a walk-on junior, sure does. He said she has helped him focus on positive energy. Last year, he was dwelling on all the negativity that came his way.
“I failed to shut out the outside noise,” Rastetter said Tuesday.
Now, he’s off social media altogether. He’s in a better place mentally.
“I took the whole year as a learning experience, in a way,” he said, “and built off of that.”
His rugby-style kicks always seem to roll forward, don’t they?
And if you watch closely, you’ll notice that every kick has a purpose. Rastetter meticulously works at angling his punts away from the return man — be it short, right, left, even long. That’s all by design. He also credited having a full-time special teams coach in LeVar Woods as helping his growth.
“You’ll see returners cheating over, and it’s on me to kind of mess them up in a way,” Rastetter said. “I kind of like it. Keep me on my toes, too.”
When the topic of Parker Hesse’s value came up, Ferentz’s face lit up.
“I'm not promoting or campaigning for him being MVP of our team,” Ferentz said during his Tuesday news conference … before starting to do just that. “In a lot of ways, you can make that argument.”
Hesse has been the heart and soul of an Iowa defense that ranks third nationally in total yardage (258.1 per game) and fifth in scoring (14.1 points a game). He has 31 tackles, tops on Iowa’s talented defensive line, and is tied with A.J. Epenesa for the team lead with seven tackles for negative yardage.
“Everything about him is quality,” Ferentz said of the former two-star recruit from Waukon who now has 41 career starts at defensive end. “Any young player in our program, if they would follow his lead, that would be really well-advised.
“I can say that about a lot of our guys, but he's run the race, and he's run it really well. Boy, I'm thrilled he's on our football team.”
You can’t get much better praise than that from the head coach.
Jack Hockaday was a full participant in practice Monday and Tuesday, clearing the way for Iowa’s senior middle linebacker to return at Penn State. Hockaday missed the last two games with a knee injury.
“He’s looking good,” said junior Kristian Welch, who replaced Hockaday as the starter against Indiana and Maryland and overtook him as the team's leading tackler. “He’s a great leader.”
Hockaday will likely start on the bench Saturday. Ferentz said he’ll probably open with Welch at middle, with freshman Djimon Colbert making his fourth straight start at weak-side.
“We're playing pretty well right now,” Ferentz said.
If there are struggles, though, he has options. Iowa could slide Hockaday to either inside spot. Nick Niemann, the starting outside linebacker, also has position flexibility.
The Matt Hankins injury situation continues to linger.
After dressing (but not playing) in Iowa's two road games with a wrist injury, the sophomore cornerback did not suit up against Maryland because of a hamstring issue. Ferentz said Hankins is not 100 percent; fellow corner Michael Ojemudia is further along from his own hamstring injury.
"O.J. is just about full strength," Ferentz said. "Hopefully, we'll get Matt back quickly. That would really help us a little bit."
So it looks like a fourth straight week with true freshmen Julius Brents and Riley Moss at cornerback. Iowa is 3-0 when they start.
At least Iowa will have a well-rested quarterback Saturday.
Yes, the ESPN2 broadcast was correct. Nate Stanley gets close to nine hours of sleep per night.
“I try to shoot for over eight. Sometimes you get nine,” Stanley said. “It just depends on the night.”
For a full-time college student who also has, essentially, a full-time job in being a Big Ten Conference quarterback — especially at Iowa, which puts heavy emphasis on film study — that’s impressive.
And, probably, comforting. You know the junior’s mind will be sharp entering his first snaps at Beaver Stadium.
“It goes back to the skills that my parents instilled in me with time management, and just making sure that you stick to your plan,” Stanley said. “You lay out your day, so you know what you have going on.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.