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Iowa wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette talks about his breakout game against Iowa State a year ago, and how that helps him today Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Last year’s Cy-Hawk football game was a dawning for Iowa wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette: his first realization that he could be an impact college player and that his coaches believed in him.

It was nearly the beginning of the end of safety Jake Gervase’s tenure as a Hawkeye starter, who embarked on a difficult three-week period during which he discovered that he had the wherewithal to fight to reclaim his job.

The Cyclones and Hawkeyes meet for a 66th time on the gridiron at 4 p.m. Saturday inside Kinnick Stadium. The game is sold ou,t and those without a ticket can watch on Fox. There is plenty of fanfare surrounding the annual rivalry matchup, won by Iowa 44-41 in overtime last year.

 

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Here are a couple of personal stories from that game: from a Hawkeye who had the thrill of a lifetime, and a teammate who was humbled but not humiliated.

Both will be in the starting lineup Saturday, and want to play big roles in deciding the outcome.

A wideout is wide-eyed no more

Smith-Marsette was a 159-pound 18-year-old coming off a fumble in his first career college game heading into last year’s contest in Ames. He would have been justified to have concern about how much trust coach Kirk Ferentz would place in him on such a big stage.

Ferentz, who has repeatedly said he sees something he likes in the spirited Smith-Marsette — a never-back-down attitude of sorts — threw the rookie right back on the field.

Smith-Marsette responded with two touchdown catches, including the game-winner on a 5-yard pass that he went to the ground to catch, holding on tightly before seeing the referee signal touchdown and then bolting to his feet.

It’s a moment he will never forget, being under that pile of jubilant teammates.

“The coaches believing in me, trusting me to go out there, putting me in a position to make that play, even after coming off that fumble the first week,” Smith-Marsette recalled Tuesday. “I took full advantage of it.

“It boosted my confidence and then it just helped me realize that I could make plays at this level and not shy away from the big moment.”

Smith-Marsette is Iowa’s fastest player and the wide receiver best equipped to challenge defenses downfield. He maintains an outward bravura that the New Jersey native acknowledges can be tested at times. He has said he got down on himself later in the 2017 season after dropping a pass against Minnesota.

The key for him, he said, is “resiliency.”

“You’ve got to be able to get through that. Some people have it. Some people don’t," .” Smith-Marsette said. "I’m not the type of person that’s going to get in a shell."

That belief in himself has carried over not just to this week’s rematch but to his entire season.

Indeed, when pressed by reporters about the deficiencies in Iowa’s passing attack during a season-opening 33-7 win over Northern Illinois, Smith-Marsette bristled a little. He led Hawkeye wideouts with a mere three catches.

“I don’t think anything was missing,” Smith-Marsette said. “We played the game. We won the game.”

Spoken like a veteran.

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On the bench, then back off it

The Hawkeyes surrendered 467 yards to the Cyclones a year ago, plus a season-high point total. It was not the defense’s finest hour, especially when it came to trying to harness Iowa State running back David Montgomery in space.

Gervase was making his second career start at safety. He finished with six tackles. But he struggled along with his teammates and put his starting role in a perilous spot. The following week, at home against North Texas, he got the early hook.

”It was a rough couple of weeks,” Gervase said Tuesday, looking back at his benching.

Gervase is a senior now. The Davenport Assumption graduate is a member of the Hawkeye leadership group, voted on by his teammates.

He earned that distinction by what he accomplished in the three weeks when he wasn’t starting. He continued to work hard on special teams. He got a starting safety job back in the seventh game last year and hasn’t let it go.

“You’ve got to know your role and accept your role and do everything you can to help the team,” Gervase said.

“I just tried to focus day in and day out, whether it was communication, whether it was my footwork, the energy I brought to practice, just focusing on anything I could to help the team and add value.”

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Iowa safety Jake Gervase talks about the difficulties in defending Cyclone quarterback Kyle Kempt and wide receiver Hakeem Butler Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

 

Gervase finished last season with 58 tackles and three interceptions. He had five stops and a pass breakup last week as the Iowa defense was superb. He is eager to tangle with the Cyclones again Saturday, hoping to show that last year’s effort was atypical.

“I think I handled it the best way I could,” he said of last year’s benching. “It’s going to be hard for a while, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s just the game of football.”

IOWA STATE (0-0) AT IOWA (1-0)

WHERE: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

TIME/TV: 4 p.m., Fox (Tim Brando, Spencer Tillman, Holly Sonders)

LINE: Hawkeyes by 4

WEATHER: Mostly cloudy and 68 degrees; winds from ENE at 13 mph

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