Brown: Punters will play key role in Iowa-Illinois outcome

Rick Brown

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Iowa punted seven times last week at Minnesota. The Gophers started two of those possessions in Hawkeye territory, and never deeper than their own 31. Not exactly coffin corner stuff.

Minnesota punted the ball away three times to Iowa. The Hawkeyes started those possessions at their own 11-, 14- and 19-yard lines.

Jonathan Parker, who handles kickoffs, had three returns that led to Iowa starting drives at its own 6-, 8- and 13-yard lines. The battle for field position was as one-sided as the 51-14 score.

"That's a bad way to play Big Ten football," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "That's a bad way to play any football."

If Saturday's game with Illinois at Memorial Stadium was a punting contest, the Hawkeyes would be a decided underdog. Justin DuVernois, a prep teammate of Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock, leads the Big Ten and ranks sixth nationally at 45.7 yards a kick, and has a chance to erase the school's single-season record of 45.4.

Iowa's scholarship tandem of Dillon Kidd and Connor Kornbrath are averaging 37.9 yards a punt. Neither have had a punt downed inside the 20 in the last two games. That only magnifies the field position tug-of-war.

Punting has been an issue for the Hawkeyes all season. And Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz doesn't discount the possibility that another punter might be on their recruiting wish list.

"We'll see," Ferentz said. "We've got three weeks left. We'll let the guys continue to compete."

Placekicker Marshall Koehn, who was the backup punter to Kornbrath last season, isn't an option. He wants to concentrate on his kickoff and field-goal duties.

Koehn and Bruce Craddock of Maryland are the only placekickers who haven't missed a field goal in Big Ten play. Koehn also leads the conference and is fourth nationally in touchback percentage at 68.1 percent. Putting the ball into the end zone will be a big plus in the field-position game Saturday.

The punters haven't been as successful at establishing field position. And they'll be kicking it to Illinois punt returner V'Angelo Bentley, who led the Big Ten in punt return average last season and is fifth this year at 10.2 yards. Iowa is last in the Big Ten in punt return average.

If Illinois controls field position, and makes Iowa play uphill, it might not matter how many yards the Big Ten's worst defense surrenders.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.