Iowa takeaways: Why Kirk Ferentz chose to kick off twice

Chad Leistikow

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — You may never see this statistic in a college football game again.

Illinois had zero kickoffs in Saturday’s 28-0 home loss to Iowa.

More uncommon than a shutout, the Hawkeyes kicked off to start both halves.

That happened because Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz made this unusual decision for just the second time in his career: Upon winning the toss, he instructed his captains to defend the North end zone.

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Usually a team elects to receive or defer their choice to the second half. But Ferentz wanted the 23 mph wind at his team’s back to start both halves in the Big Ten Conference game.

“It was something I’ve never been a part of, to defend a side,” co-captain C.J. Beathard said. “Coach Ferentz made it clear that we wanted to not defer, but defend. I didn’t even know it was possible for a team to get the ball (to start) both halves. It was that big of a factor this game.”

Ferentz tried it one other time, 13 years ago.

Iowa players celebrate after defeating Illinois 28-0 in Memorial Stadium.

“Some of you guys may remember this. But in ’03, it didn’t work out too well up in East Lansing,” Ferentz said. “We took the wind, and they drove it 80 yards and ate up about eight minutes. Double whammy there. This wind, and what it can do in the kicking game especially, just didn’t want to take that chance today.”

Ferentz hoped to win the field-position game in the first quarter, knowing that an early strike would make catching up even more difficult.

It didn’t play out exactly like that, with the teams finishing scoreless after one quarter. But the Hawkeyes did take advantage with the wind in the third quarter, forcing two Illinois three-and-outs and one interception.

Hello, Noah

Iowa’s offense has in desperate need of third-down conversions for the past month. With a true freshman, it got a big one in Saturday’s first half.

On third-and-8 in a scoreless second quarter, Beathard connected with rookie tight end Noah Fant for a key 10-yard gain over the middle. The completion ended a stretch of three-plus games in which Iowa had converted just eight of 43 third-down chances (18.6 percent).

Iowa started this game 0-for-4 on third downs, then, starting with the Fant catch, was an improved 4-for-9 the rest of the way.

Fant wound up being Iowa’s leading receiver Saturday, with three catches for 25 yards. Next week, the Omaha native will face his home-state team.

“He’s a really big threat if you get him in space and get him open,” Beathard said of Fant. “He’s got good hands and he’s a real good young talent. He’s going to be really good someday.”

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Beware of Thorpe winner

At some point, opponents have little choice but to try to throw toward Iowa cornerback Desmond King.

Saturday in the third quarter, Illinois did. Illinois failed.

The Jim Thorpe Award winner collected his second interception of the season and 13th of his career on a Wes Lunt pass attempt up the left sideline. King cradled the catch and kept two feet inbounds to tie Tyler Sash for No. 5 all-time on Iowa’s interception list.

King now trails only Devon Mitchell (18), Nile Kinnick (18), Jovon Johnson (17) and Damien Robinson (14) in Hawkeye interception history.

“It doesn’t come my way very often,” King said. “But when it does, you’ve got to make that play.”

Manny still making plays

Another week, another Manny Rugamba turnover.

The true freshman, in his second career start, not only forced an Illinois fumble on a fourth-quarter kickoff, he recovered it.

That’s three takeaways this season for a guy that, until Greg Mabin got hurt before last week’s game against Michigan, was mostly a third-down nickel back.

The 6-foot-1, 172-pounder from Naperville, Ill., was excellent in pass coverage and in run support (seven tackles, including five solos).

The next Desmond King?

“I don’t know about that. He needs to make his own name for himself,” King said. “He’s starting off on the right track. He’s got a bright future ahead of him.”

Akrum bounces back

A fumble used to send Akrum Wadley into the proverbial doghouse. No more.

Wadley is a trusted ball carrier for the Hawkeyes. The junior who once fumbled four times in a span of 36 carries was forced to bounce back from fumbling adversity for the first time this season.

After running free for a 17-yard gain on well-executed fourth-and-2 sweep, Wadley coughed the ball up inside the Illinois 5. The Illini recovered at the 1, keeping Iowa out of the end zone in a scoreless game.

“It’s a bad feeling. It happens,” Wadley said, a sign of his maturity. “You take the good with the bad, and you’ve just got to bounce back.”

As it turned out, the fumble wasn’t that harmful at all. The defense forced a three-and-out after the turnover, and the ensuing punt was returned by Riley McCarron for a 55-yard touchdown.

Wadley would get eight more carries for the day, and he finished with 82 yards on 13 attempts.

Final thoughts

Here’s what Illinois first-year coach Lovie Smith had to say about Saturday’s loss on Senior Day:

“You have to give Iowa credit. They played well and did what they had to do under weather circumstances. They played a smart, physical football game. Looking at our team, we did not. We didn't play as well as we needed to. We needed to establish the run on the offensive side, try to keep the ball as much as we could. A lot of those things you need to do to win and we didn't.”