Iowa overcomes injuries as Rugamba, Gair & Co. rise to occasion
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Manny Rugamba was supposed to ease into Iowa’s secondary as a true freshman.
Fifth-year senior Anthony Gair had produced 30 career tackles as a perennial backup at safety.
Then third-ranked Michigan came to Iowa City and injuries thrust the defensive backs into the biggest games of their lives on Saturday night, alongside a slew of other reserves filling in for hurt Hawkeyes throughout the lineup.
As the sellout crowd that rushed the field after a stunning 14-13 upset at Kinnick Stadium could attest, they all ably rose the nationally televised occasion.
“We all had just had enough,” Gair said with a smile after the win. “We were tired of losing. We knew Michigan was going to come out with a bunch of different personnel groups and formations, but we all studied the film, recognized the plays and do the best we could.
“I go hard at practice every week never knowing what’s going to happen, and today was my day. I did the best I could.”
Rugamba was a late replacement for cornerback Greg Mabin, whose streak of 31 consecutive starts was snapped by ankle issues.
Gair went from the sidelines to virtual starter in the game’s opening snaps as strong safety Miles Taylor came off hurt.
What business did they have defending Michigan’s senior star receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson? And what could the rest of Iowa’s reserves possibly add?
As it turns out, a game-winning effort.
“It’s just a matter of our players believing in themselves, believing in their teammates, and most importantly playing with the heart it takes to compete every snap,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said.
“Just a lot of really good efforts and factor on top of that some guys stepping in and next man up. Manny Rugamba jumping in there. Anthony Gair coming in … a lot of efforts that way. I’m really proud of our guys.”
Rugamba was credited with four tackles, three pass break-ups and one essential interception of Michigan (9-1, 6-1) quarterback Wilton Speight with 3:43 remaining.
Gair chipped in seven tackles and was an integral part of the unit that limited the Wolverines to 103 yards passing. The pair was making its first and second career starts, respectively.
Iowa’s injury list rolled on: offensive tackle Cole Croston, tight end George Kittle were ruled out pregame with Mabin, defensive tackle Nathan Bazata barely played, and versatile tackle Ike Boettger hobbled off the field late.
And don’t forget receiver Matt VandeBerg’s absence, going on seven weeks.
“It’s the culture around here, ‘Next man in,’” Iowa offensive lineman Sean Welsh said. “Regardless of the circumstances. All of us, at one point or another, were recruited to play college football and everyone is expected to be able to do their jobs. Guys really stepped up tonight.”
Welsh moved from right guard to right tackle to replace Boettger on the final series of the game. Redshirt freshman Levi Paulsen quietly ran in to fill Welsh’s spot ahead of Keith Duncan’s kick. Previously second-string Keegan Render was already played well as a run-blocker at left guard.
These shuffles came on ABC against the No. 1 defense in the country.
No pressure, right?
“It was one of those nights when you didn’t have a lot of time to think about moving over or process it,” Welsh said. “You just go play.”
Big rushing formations put tight ends Peter Pekar and Nate Wieting in the rotation to alleviate Kittle’s absence. True freshman tight end Noah Fant continued to spread wide as a receiving option.
Defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie had four tackles, two for loss, in his second consecutive start ahead of Bazata.
Plenty of other substitutes struck at perfect times, too — linebacker Jack Hockaday forced a Michigan fumble to start the second half — and helped the Hawkeyes (6-4, 4-3) become bowl eligible in style.
“Every little thing isn’t going to go our team’s way,” Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It doesn’t always go your way and to win, you have to make it that way. And we didn’t do enough things to make it that way.”
Injuries and appearances certainly didn’t go Iowa’s way. But, at least for an instant classic of a night, the Hawkeyes overcame the challenge.
“It’ll be a game I never forget,” Gair said.
SATURDAY’S SURPRISE STARTERS
Iowa’s lineup against Michigan was filled with second-string and replacement players asked to step up against the Big Ten leaders and No. 3 team in the nation. Here are the surprise names credited with a start on Saturday.