Hawkeyes get Noah Fant involved in the offense, and the points start flowing

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central
Iowa tight end Noah Fant celebrates with the Hawkeye fans after pulling down a touchdown reception against Northern Iowa on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Noah Fant was celebrating in the end zone at Kinnick Stadium again Saturday, which is nothing new.

But this one felt extra special.

First, it gave the junior tight end a piece of Iowa Hawkeye history he later claimed to be unaware of. Fant now has 14 career touchdowns — the most in program history by someone who plays his position. And there have been a lot of pretty good tight ends to wear the black and gold.

“I did not know that,” Fant said when informed of this. “That’s a cool accolade to have, but during the game, we’re focused on … I was hoping to get another one, honestly — just score points.”

Just score points.

That was the larger significance of the Fant touchdown, which was the springboard to a 38-14 Iowa victory over Northern Iowa. He had been pretty quiet in Iowa’s first two games — so had the entire offense. Those seem to go hand in hand.

Fant even got benched for much of the third quarter of the Sept. 8 victory over Iowa State. That was a sign that his commitment to the blocking aspect of his position is not always at the level his coaches desire.

So what happened in the first quarter Saturday was the best possible outcome for the Hawkeyes. Fant caught a 43-yard pass from Nate Stanley. Then that 5-yard touchdown to open the floodgates.

“After Noah did that, everyone wanted to contribute,” said Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent, who was so inspired he scored two touchdowns of his own.

Fant hauled in gains of 19 and 29 yards on back-to-back plays on Iowa’s next drive. The Panthers, scrambling to keep up with the Hawkeyes’ up-tempo offense, decided not to cover him for some reason. Bad idea.

Fant kept the drive alive by going to the turf to haul in a 3-yard pass on fourth-and-2 in the red zone.

Five catches for 99 yards — that was Fant’s first quarter. His first two games consisted of seven catches for 41 yards.

Fant’s longest gain this season had been 11 yards. Three of his catches Saturday eclipsed that.

“They just cut him loose on a couple plays,” Stanley said after throwing for 309 yards and a pair of touchdowns. “One, they just totally dropped him. So, obviously, just try to get him the ball, let him do something after he catches it. There was a lot of opportunities out there just because the tempo, I think, that we were playing within that first quarter caused them a little bit of confusion.”

There was an early scare Saturday, when Fant took a shot to his ribs and writhed on the ground for a long while before gingerly heading to the sideline. He was back soon. And that was good news for the Hawkeyes.

“At worst, it might be a bruised rib. But it’s not going to stop me. I’ll be good,” Fant said.

Iowa will need him to be. Wisconsin is next on the schedule, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Fant gives the Hawkeye offense a dimension that opponents need to game-plan to stop.

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Stanley said the plan Saturday was not to force-feed the football to Fant, although it sure looked like it was.

“You can’t really just say, ‘Hey, I’m going to focus in on this one guy,’” Stanley said. “I don’t think that’s positive for the offense in general, and I think that’s when some bad plays can happen.”

Fair point. But if there’s one guy Iowa should be looking to feature in its offense, it’s got to be Fant. His 14 touchdowns speak to that.

He’s a special athlete. He works extremely hard and obviously can make a lot of plays with the ball in his hands,” Stanley said when asked yet another question about his star tight end. “We do a lot of different things to get him involved in the offense, and he produces for us.”

Fant was asked to describe his record-breaking touchdown.

“I motioned across — it was a simple rub concept. Kyle Groeneweg came in — he didn’t pick the guy, but he ran a good route — kind of get that rub that you’re looking for — and their defense wasn’t able to get through it. And Nate put up a good ball and it was a walk into the end zone. So, great call and we were able to execute,” Fant said.

“Obviously, it was fun celebrating with my teammates in the end zone.”

It’s Fant’s comfort zone. And the Hawkeyes operate best when he’s comfortable.