EAST LANSING, Mich. — Tucked behind the disappointment of Iowa’s 17-10 loss at Michigan State on Saturday was one of the coolest play calls in the Kirk Ferentz era.
And it worked.
Facing a fourth-and-8 in the third quarter, the Hawkeyes successfully faked a field goal with the punter completing a 15-yard pass to a true freshman defensive end.
“It was a gutsy play call,” placekicker Miguel Recinos said. “I’m really proud of the guys that we were able to take that from the practice field to the game field, you know?”
Iowa was trailing, 17-7, at the time and would have been attempting a 40-yard field goal.
But when Recinos got into the huddle, he heard Colten Rastetter — the holder on placements — give the code word, “Hawkeye.” The fake they’ve been practicing had been called from upstairs by offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.
“I thought, no way he said ‘Hawkeye.’ I put my hand on his helmet and said, ‘Did you say Hawkeye? Oh my God,’” Recinos said. “So then I shifted my line of thinking. It worked pretty well.”
Iowa shifted its formation pre-snap, and Rastetter was then the acting quarterback in a deep shotgun. T.J. Hockenson went into motion, and Rastetter rolled right and threw back to his left — where A.J. Epenesa had broken open in the Spartan secondary. The underthrown ball was caught by the true freshman, who was an eligible receiver as the end on the left side of Iowa’s line.
“I just ran a little wheel route if they needed me," Recinos said. "Make no mistake, for that specific one, A.J. was our primary target.”
Unfortunately, the cool call didn’t turn into any points. Three plays later on third-and-goal from the 5, quarterback Nate Stanley fumbled while trying to make a throw as he scrambled, and Michigan State recovered.
Change the punter?
Iowa’s struggles at punter have been building all season and in Saturday’s first half it was especially painful.
Rastetter’s short kicks contributed to short fields for Michigan State that led to 10 points — and if not for Iowa’s resilient defense, it could’ve been worse.
Michigan State clearly had done its homework and knew that Rastetter has been hitting his kicks poorly all season; they’ve been so short, return men have been too deep to catch them and Iowa has benefited from generous rolls. So on Saturday, the Spartans used multiple return men — one short, one deeper — to cut off that advantage.
Rastetter’s first four punts netted an average of 29.5 yards:
—A 37-yard rugby-style kick that one-hopped to Laress Nelson for an 8-yard return.
—A 36-yard line drive that Nelson ran back 11 yards to Iowa’s 31. That set up the Spartans’ second TD.
—A 32-yard wobbler that gave Michigan State the ball at Iowa’s 42.
—And a 33-yard side-winder that put the Spartans at Iowa’s 36. That led to a Michigan State field goal and a 17-7 halftime lead.
More Iowa football coverage:
- Two fumbles are too much for Hawkeyes to win
- Leistikow: Iowa's run game is broken, and it's a big problem
Rastetter is a third-year walk-on from Guttenberg. Iowa gave a scholarship in this last recruiting cycle to punter Ryan Gersonde. The true freshman was in uniform Saturday, but still has not been used this fall.
It might be time for a change. Punting isn’t winning for the Hawkeyes through five games.
“We didn’t punt the ball as well as we need to,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Anytime you get a young punter, you’ve got to ride the roller coaster a little bit. We’ll assess that this week, like we’ll assess a lot of things and just keep an open mind. I’ve got an open mind at every position.”
It was a surprise to most of us to see Michael Ojemudia starting in place of Manny Rugamba at right cornerback on Saturday — to him, too.
The redshirt sophomore said he didn’t find out until Saturday that he would get the nod. Rugamba didn’t play at all after what Kirk Ferentz said was an injury that he suffered last week against Penn State.
“He got better during the week,” Ferentz said. “Kept climbing the ladder, but couldn’t go today. No sense putting a guy out there that can’t go 100 percent. Hopefully he’ll be back next week.”
Later in the game, Ojemudia was briefly sidelined after taking helmet-to-helmet contact, and true freshman Matt Hankins was Iowa’s second corner opposite Joshua Jackson.
Iowa’s secondary had a rough start, with Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke picking on Ojemudia early and often on the way to a 14-0 lead. Receiver Felton Davis III finished the game with nine catches for 114 yards.
“It’s not one person,” strong safety Miles Taylor said. “We just need to play better as a defense, communicate better, play better in practice.”
One last chance foiled
Iowa’s defense made one final stop of Michigan State, which lined up to punt with the clock stopped with 1 minute, 11 seconds left.
The Hawkeyes didn’t get the ball back, though, until 45 seconds remained.
How did those 26 seconds evaporate?
They can be traced to an unfortunate decision by Jackson as the punt returner. When Jake Hartbarger boomed a punt 52 yards, Jackson fielded the ball at his own goal line — rather than taking the touchback — and ran around for a while before getting tackled at the 7. But there was an illegal-formation penalty on Michigan State, and Iowa elected to have Hartbarger rekick.
Had Jackson taken the initial touchback, Iowa would’ve had the ball with over a minute left at the 25-yard line (with the five penalty yards tacked on). Instead, Jackson let the next punt roll to the Iowa 15, and Iowa had just 45 seconds with no timeouts to operate.
The Hawkeyes’ offense was largely ineffective anyway on Saturday, but a little extra time and field position would’ve given them a better chance shot at forcing overtime.