Iowa takeaways: More Ferentz trickery; Gersonde, Wirfs step into key roles
IOWA CITY, Ia. — One week, a fake field goal. The next, a surprise onside kick and fake punt.
Riverboat Kirk Ferentz has been catching opponents off guard, and he did again in Iowa’s 45-16 win against Illinois at Kinnick Stadium.
Let’s start with the first-quarter — yes, first-quarter — onside kick after Iowa had taken a 7-3 lead and was kicking off from the 50-yard line after an Illinois late hit on Nick Easley’s touchdown catch.
Placekicker Miguel Recinos actually made the on-field call to do it, after mid-week discussions with special teams coach LeVar Woods.
“Something we’ve been cooking up. When we were watching the film on them, we saw a favorable look,” Recinos explained. “… I saw the look, and I’m, like, ‘Alright. Gotta do it.’”
So Recinos gave his teammates the signal and squibbed a ball past the right edge of Illinois’ front-line returners. True freshman Matt Hankins scurried to the ball, and he recovered just inside the boundary at the Illini 37.
“When I hit it, I was, like, ‘Ooh, that might’ve been a little bit too hard.’ Then Hankins made a great play,” Recinos said, “and it was, like … relief and happiness at the same time.”
Unfortunately, like last week’s fake-field goal pass against Michigan State, that special-teams tomfoolery didn’t turn into points — Iowa was stuffed on fourth-and-1 at the Illinois 14.
And that may have been the impetus for Ferentz to roll the dice again. Late in the first half, after Illinois used its final two timeouts to force an apparent Iowa punt, the Hawkeyes pulled out another fake.
“In that situation right there, we just felt like we needed a little juice,” Ferentz said, “something maybe to get us going.”
So with fourth-and-5 and Iowa lined up at Illinois’ 41 with 1:03 left, Colten Rastetter dropped back to punt (another fake; more on that later), and safety Amani Hooker took a direct snap and lumbered 18 yards for a first down.
(Illinois shouldn’t have taken those timeouts, after all.)
“Big ol' hole,” Hooker said, “and I was just trying to hit it.”
This time, Iowa turned the bold move into seven points, with Nate Stanley completing a 2-yard touchdown pass to Akrum Wadley on third-and-goal with 8 seconds left.
“We weren’t really getting much on offense,” Hooker said, “and that (fake punt) helped give us some energy.”
And a halftime lead Iowa would not relinquish, 17-13.
New punter alert
We mentioned Rastetter lined up on that fake. At that point, Illinois hadn’t seen true freshman Ryan Gersonde as Iowa’s punter. That’s because Iowa didn’t punt in the first half — thanks in part to three scores, two offensive turnovers and the turnover on downs.
But Gersonde got out there for three boots in the second half, and they traveled 38, 32 and 43 yards. He is the 10th true freshman to play for Iowa this season.
The first two punts of his college career went into a stiff breeze out of the south.
“His stats don’t show as well as he did. Because he punted into the wind – that was a strong wind — twice,” Recinos said of his fellow specialist (Iowa doesn’t permit true freshmen to be interviewed). “That first one was (38) yards — I think it would’ve been in the 50s had it been in decent conditions.”
Gersonde did have nice hang time on his first and third kicks, something that was missing under Rastetter through five weeks. Ferentz had said there was an ongoing competition at punter last week, and it appears there’s been a changing of the guard.
It should be noted that one of the guys that helped get Gersonde ready was the guy he replaced.
“Colten was a big help for Ryan,” Recinos said, “just showing him what to expect and how to deal with going out in Kinnick.”
That’s nice to hear.
Recinos had another good day himself. The junior was 6-for-6 on PATs and drilled a 37-yard field goal in the second quarter, not to mention the precise onside kick.
It was a good day for Iowa's special teams on a wet, windy day.
Speaking of rookies
Tristan Wirfs dipped his toe in the water three weeks ago against North Texas, the true freshman from Mount Vernon getting some late snaps to burn his redshirt.
After two weeks on the sideline, Iowa threw him into the deep end of the pool Saturday.
Wirfs started and played every key snap at right tackle for the Hawkeyes, and he did pretty well — not that anyone wearing black and gold was surprised.
“He goes 100 percent all the time,” starting left tackle Alaric Jackson said. “Anything I tell him, he already knows. He’s a great player. He’s a freak.”
At 6-foot-5, 315 pounds, Wirfs is a physical specimen. He became the first true freshman to start at tackle in Ferentz’s 19 years at Iowa.
That’s saying something. Only three other true freshmen have started on Iowa’s offensive line in the past 19 seasons, period. All started at guard — Mike Jones (seven games in 2003), Bryan Bulaga (five games in 2007) and James Daniels (two games in 2015).
“I thought he had a good day,” said Sean Welsh, who became the Hawkeyes’ stop-gap at right tackle for 3½ games once Ike Boettger was lost for the season. “We won’t really know until we watch the film. He stayed calm. He knew his assignments.”
Welsh slid back to his “home” role of right guard, where he was a USA TODAY second-team all-American a year ago. If Wirfs can stick — that’s the hope and plan — that’d be good for Iowa’s offensive line.
“Every week, (Wirfs has) been building and gaining, and it's a twofold benefit for us,” Ferentz said. “If he can play well out there, that's good for us, obviously, and then … it allows Sean to get back to where he's a little bit more comfortable. We're kind of just fudging things a little bit with Sean out there (at tackle). We're taking a guy who's a really good football player and maybe minimizing some of his effectiveness.”
Iowa also was able to give Boone Myers, who has been playing part-time at left guard with a high-ankle sprain, the day off. Keegan Render and Ross Reynolds shared time at left guard.
Jansen jumps in
When Nathan Bazata went down in the second quarter with an unspecified injury, sophomore defensive tackle Garret Jansen stepped up.
Jansen, a 6-foot-2, 280-pound lineman from Pella, stayed in the middle throughout the second half, savoring the first consistent action of his career.
“It was awesome,” Jansen said. “I played a little bit last year, but not at such a significant position and significant role in the game.”
The Hawkeyes were locked in a tight game when the former Cincinnati commit came on to replace a 30-game starter. Bazata was credited with a career-high eight tackles against Michigan State and recorded one before going out Saturday.
Jansen called Bazata a “role model” after the game and may need to channel the similarly-sized senior if he’s called back into Big Ten action soon.
“We’ll have to watch the film,” Jansen said, “but I think for jumping in there, I did OK.”
Bazata, by the way, should be fine, according to Ferentz.
“If we were playing next week, as far as I know, he'd be ready to go,” Ferentz said. “But this week off will help him a little bit.”
Jewell seems OK
Iowa had an injury scare in the second quarter when Josey Jewell went to the locker room. He missed two series, with Jack Hockaday taking his place at middle linebacker.
“It was just a little shoulder injury, so it will be good — especially with a bye week,” said Jewell, who still ended up sharing the team lead with 10 tackles, giving him a Big Ten-high 70 for the season.
His return was a sigh of relief.
“The best player on our team, arguably,” outside linebacker Ben Niemann said. “We’re better when he’s on the field.”
Reporter Chris Cuellar contributed to this report.