'Teams don't expect to get hit there': How Iowa's special teams could prove vital in Cy-Hawk matchup

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It’s hard to predict if or when they’ll come — but they usually aren’t forgotten when they do. Run through any rivalry’s history, and you’ll find those special teams moments that pop. Cy-Hawk is no different.

There’s Desmond King weaving through Cyclone traffic in 2015, his 34-yard fourth-quarter punt return pivotal in flipping field position as Iowa pounced for the kill. That came a year after Cole Netten’s 42-yard game-winning kick hushed a sold-out Kinnick Stadium with two seconds remaining. Hawkeye fans would rather focus on 2008, when Andy Brodell zig-zagged through the mush for the longest special teams touchdown in Cy-Hawk history.

Saturday, the rivalry’s latest edition begins with an amplified feel. Traditional in-state hate, coupled with College GameDay’s arrival and lofty expectations on both sides, has throttled 2019 Cy-Hawk onto a grander stage. Plenty of tension is expected.

Iowa punter Michael Sleep-Dalton (22) celebrates after a punt landed inside the 1-yard line during a NCAA Big Ten Conference football game against Rutgers, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

Could football’s third phase generate another momentum-swinging memory?

“Teams don’t expect to get hit there,” said wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Iowa’s potent weapon on kickoff return. “When you go out there and make that special teams play, that’ll put them in a bind of, ‘Aw man, how are they going to respond to it?’ 

“You hit that big play, you never know how it’s going to spark your team. You never know how detrimental it could be to the other team. It could get their spirits down like, ‘Dang, we just gave up a kick return, punt return or a punt block.’ Affecting the game on special teams, it can shift the game a whole different way.”

► More:Think you know Cy-Hawk history? Take our quiz to find out

Although Iowa has owned the rivalry of late with four straight victories, the Hawkeyes (2-0) and Cyclones (1-0) have a knack for getting intense late. Seven of the last eight Cy-Hawk matchups have either been decided by one score or were a one-score game entering the fourth quarter.

That trend sets the stage for similar drama Saturday. When things get tight, a boost — or a mishap — on special teams could carry significant weight.

“Any time you get into games like this — and any big games, which I certainly consider this to be — all those axioms or the old adages prove to be true,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday, “and certainly special teams are going to be a big, big part of the ball game.”

In turn, No. 18 Iowa should feel solid about its feet. The Hawkeyes had preseason position battles at both punter and kicker, yet those winners have proved their worth through two games.

Michael Sleep-Dalton shined in his first extensive action, averaging 48.3 yards on six punts in last Saturday’s win over Rutgers. His longest boot covered 57 yards, which pinned the Scarlet Knights against their own goal line midway through the fourth quarter.

Two of the six punts landed inside the Rutgers 20-yard line. Two more helped dig Iowa out of its own field-position hole. The Arizona State graduate transfer, whose season punting average (45.9 yards) ranks 21 nationally, should enter his first Cy-Hawk experience with loads of confidence.

As is the case with Keith Duncan. From glory to irrelevancy and back during his collegiate tenure, Iowa’s redshirt junior kicker is back thriving in a pivotal role.

Iowa placekicker Keith Duncan (3) gets embraced by Iowa long snapper Jackson Subbert (50) and Iowa tight end Shaun Beyer (42) after a field goal during a NCAA Big Ten Conference football game against Rutgers, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

Duncan is 4-for-4 so far on field goals, including makes of 46 and 43 yards against the Scarlet Knights. They weren’t exactly pressure kicks — nothing was in doubt against lowly Rutgers — but remember, these are Duncan’s first in-game experiences since 2016.

Rediscovering success before a death-trap road environment could be the crucial ingredient, should Iowa need Duncan’s services in crunch time. He’s already surpassed the number of successful field goals from 40-plus yards than he hit during his freshman season.

“If they can continue to play well and play better,” Ferentz said, “that's going to be a good thing for us certainly.”       

Iowa’s returners haven’t been quite as emphatic — part lack of opportunities, part lack of experience. Both Smith-Marsette and Nico Ragaini are hoping Saturday provides an opening.

Smith-Marsette has only gotten one chance on kickoff return — a 19-yard runback against Miami (Ohio). Two other season-opening opportunities were too deep to bring out. Last week’s shutout led to only one kickoff return. It too was a touchback.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” Smith-Marsette said, “but sooner or later, it’s going to start coming out.”                    

Ragaini has had some frustration as well through two games as the Hawkeyes’ new punt returner. He fell victim to Adam Korsak’s punting display and couldn’t dig Iowa out of rough field position all afternoon.    

Iowa wide receiver Nico Ragaini speaks with reporters ahead of the Cy-Hawk series football game, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, at the Hansen Football Performance Center in Iowa City, Iowa.

His first return lost the Hawkeyes five yards, and another resulted in a fair catch at his own 5-yard line. Ragaini later let a bouncing punt go that ultimately rested against the Hawkeye goal line.

Among the biggest competition jumps from high school to college is the quality of punting. Ragaini, who said he returned punts throughout all five of his prep seasons, learned the hard way against Rutgers. He says the experience should fuel growth.

“I’m learning from it,” Ragaini said. “I’ve got to get better.

“… We know how important special teams can be. There are only like a couple plays that can change a game, so if you can make one of those plays on special teams, that can definitely help out in a big rivalry game like this one.”

When dissecting the pivotal elements to Saturday’s Cy-Hawk outcome, special teams likely won’t garner the most pub. That could easily change postgame when pivotal moments are reviewed.

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.