IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa needed a difference-maker in the passing game against Illinois and got one in true freshman Jerminic Smith.
With top playmaker Tevaun Smith injured and leading receiver Matt VandeBerg bottled up, it was the three-star recruit from Garland, Texas, that stepped up Saturday in Iowa's 29-20 win.
His first college catch, a 14-yarder over the middle on second-and-8, led to the game's first touchdown — a 21-yard strike from C.J. Beathard to George Kittle for a 6-0 lead.
That 14-yarder seemed to be what Smith needed to break out. He was pressed into his first extensive duty last week at Wisconsin when Tevaun Smith (knee) couldn't play, but didn't find a rhythm with Beathard (no catches, four targets). Saturday was a different story, as Jerminic Smith became not only a factor in Iowa's offense, but a catalyst.
Smith finished with four catches for 118 yards (all in the first half), the most for a Hawkeye since Jake Duzey's 138 (on six catches) at Ohio State on Oct. 19, 2013. He made a beautiful 46-yard catch-and-run up the right sideline on third-and-27, then a 49-yarder on third-and-13 to set up the Hawkeyes' second touchdown for a 13-7 lead.
Unfortunately, he also had a big drop on a third-and-5 from Illinois' 16 when Iowa had a chance to put Illinois away. Instead, the Hawkeyes settled for a field goal and a 26-20 lead with 3:20 to play.
"For him to have a little success is good," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It would have been great for him to get one more catch there at the end, but that's the next step. You've got to start somewhere."
Smith has plenty to build on. He had a key downfield block in springing Jordan Canzeri for a 17-yard touchdown on a screen pass.
"He's carrying himself really well, and I think he's taking the coaching that he's getting really well," Ferentz said. "(Receivers coach) Bobby Kennedy and (offensive coordinator) Greg Davis, they work with those guys, and that's something we expect our guys to do. I'd say the whole group has done that, but for a true freshman to do it, and I'll be quite honest with you, in recruiting — he didn't have to block much."
Another Jerminic feat: He became the first true freshman in the Ferentz era to top 100 receiving yards in a game. Three other redshirt freshmen have done it — Calvin Davis (109, in 2003), Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (119, in 2007) and James Cleveland (101, in 2007).
Another true freshman impact
Ferentz does not permit true freshmen to talk to the media, but the university did release some comments from offensive lineman James Daniels after his most extensive work as a Hawkeye.
Daniels played left guard when Jordan Walsh (shoulder) left for a while, then played the second half at right tackle after Ike Boettger (lower leg) was lost for the game. He had some ups and downs, but no question, the 6-foot-4, 278-pound Warren, Ohio, native is becoming a fixture.
"It is different because I was recruited as a center, and then in camp they put me at guard," Daniels told the UI. "Now I am starting to play tackle a little bit. It is kind of difficult but I like it. Coach Ferentz wouldn't put me out there if he didn't think I could do it."
If Boettger and Boone Myers (stinger) can't go next week at Northwestern, Daniels could become the first Hawkeye freshman to start on the offensive line since Bryan Bulaga in 2007.
"I just got asked on the radio how much (James) has played tackle," Ferentz said. "I said, 'probably not enough.' He's done a little bit in practice, but with Boone out, we're getting a little bit thin."
Ferentz with a baseball analogy for RBs
Jordan Canzeri ended up with 43 carries Saturday, a school record that topped Sedrick Shaw's 42 against Michigan State in 1995. Ferentz was surprised it got that high — but also wasn't apologizing for it.
A Pittsburgh Pirates fan, Ferentz said Saturday, "I'm not keeping track. There's no pitch count. I don't believe in it in baseball. … I've heard good pitchers say that; older guys that have said that."
With LeShun Daniels Jr. (high-ankle sprain) not in uniform, Ferentz wasn't ready to spread the workload to either Akrum Wadley or Derrick Mitchell Jr. Both sophomores played, but neither got a carry. Mitchell did gain 4 yards on a shovel pass.
"In a game like this, you go with your best players," Ferentz said. "We had to. The game was on the line. We didn't want to give it back to their offense by any stretch."
Routine is key for Koehn
Be honest, you were a little worried when Marshall Koehn missed an extra point after Iowa's first touchdown Saturday — this on the heels of a missed final PAT against North Texas and a shanked field goal at Wisconsin.
Koehn said the groin strain he's been battling was not a factor, either.
"It's pretty healed up," the senior from Solon said. "I feel great, actually."
Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, he bounced back. Koehn went 2-for-2 on PATs and, more importantly, 3-for-3 on field goals after the PAT miss, which he called "a dumb mental error."
With Iowa nursing a 23-20 lead in the fourth quarter and twice stalling inside Illinois' 25-yard line, Koehn buried field goals of 34 and 40 yards to supply the 29-20 margin. A miss on either one, and Illinois could have won with a touchdown drive.
Chad Leistikow and Rick Brown discuss the good and the bad from Iowa's 29-20 win over Illinois.
Illinois cracks the streak
Iowa became the last team in FBS to allow a rushing touchdown when Ke'Shawn Vaughn powered in from 4 yards out.
Still, the Hawkeyes' defense was stout as usual against the run Saturday — allowing just 46 net yards on 24 attempts. Defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson led the charge, with six tackles (four solos).
Only North Texas has topped 100 as a team against the Hawkeyes all year.
Illinois interim coach Bill Cubit said his guys were "overmatched" by Iowa's defensive line.
"The defense is really the big change there," Cubit said, compared with the Iowa team that won 30-14 at Illinois last November. "I think the front is really physical."
The Iowa coach's opening statement after the 29-20 victory at Kinnick Stadium.