EVANSTON, Ill. — He’s been heralded, suspended, benched and injured.
It’s been a bizarre football season for sophomore cornerback Manny Rugamba, thought to be the rising star of the Iowa secondary after some dazzling moments as a freshman.
He was back in the starting lineup Saturday against his hometown team, Northwestern, and responded with his most solid outing of the fall in a 17-10 overtime loss.
“Whether I’m losing in Texas or Illinois, it’s the same feeling and not something I enjoy,” said Rugamba, who had six tackles at Ryan Field, with plenty of family and friends in attendance. “It’s a gut-wrenching feeling.”
Rugamba was picked on early by the Wildcats, surrendering an 11-yard completion on the first play. But he was stout from there on as the Hawkeyes held Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson to 192 yards passing and no touchdowns.
It’s the kind of performance Rugamba and the secondary will look to build on this Saturday, when Minnesota comes to Kinnick Stadium for a 5:30 p.m. kickoff. The Gophers and Hawkeyes sport identical 4-3 records, with just one victory in Big Ten Conference play — over the same last-place Illinois squad.
Minnesota has been shaky at quarterback, going with a new starter in Saturday’s 24-17 home win over the Illini. Demry Croft completed only 5 of 15 passes for 47 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions.
“This is like a lawn mower. You’ve got to continue to pull that cord over and over and over until that thing starts,” first-year Gophers coach P.J. Fleck told reporters afterward, explaining why he stuck with Croft over Conor Rhoda. “You have no other choice. We came back out and threw the ball.”
Croft was suspended for three games earlier in the season. Rugamba can relate.
Last fall, the Naperville (Ill.) Central High School product became one of four true freshmen to start in the Iowa secondary in Kirk Ferentz’s 18 years as head coach. His interception in the Hawkeyes’ upset win over Michigan was one of the highlights of 2016.
Rugamba entered 2017 as Iowa’s most experienced cornerback, with high expectations of filling in for the graduated Desmond King.
But he also entered the season under a bit of a cloud, suspended for the opening game due to an offseason violation of team policy.
Sophomore Michael Ojemudia took Rugamba’s place in the starting lineup and Iowa bottled up Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, a potential first-round NFL Draft pick, in a 24-3 win.
Rugamba started the next week at Iowa State but played poorly and was replaced by Ojemudia again while the Hawkeyes rallied for an overtime win.
Two weeks later, against Penn State, Rugamba landed awkwardly and suffered a high ankle sprain. He missed the Michigan State game.
He entered Saturday’s game at 100 percent health, Rugamba said, but with just 16 tackles and two passes broken up.
Junior Josh Jackson has emerged as Iowa’s best cornerback in a secondary that has answered the questions surrounding it before the season. It was the Hawkeyes’ least experienced position group, but opponents have thrown for only eight touchdowns while averaging 6.1 yards per pass.
Meanwhile, Rugamba has been quietly trying to become the impact player he still believes he can be. The Hawkeye secondary has produced only five interceptions. That’s one obvious area where Rugamba could provide a lift.
“I didn’t change my approach,” he said. “I just tried to do the little things, do my job and execute.
“The energy that the adversity brought really just created my focus in a different way. Every day I tried to go out there and compete as hard as I could. So I definitely am taking a positive out of the adversity that I’ve been given.”
As for the team, Rugamba said a Big Ten turnaround must start in practice, and that must start with himself.
“We’ve got to prepare harder. We’ve got to work harder. We’ve got to focus harder throughout the week,” Rugamba said.
“I try to be my own worst critic. I feel like I can help the team more. I feel that I can prepare more. I feel like I can play harder. There’s certain things I have to go back and sit down and look at about myself. I feel that I can impact this team.”