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Since Hayden Fry’s resurrection of the Iowa football program in the early 1980s, Iowa and Michigan have thrived on special-team play.

In Ann Arbor, the Wolverines have had two players — Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson — lock up Heisman trophies with touchdowns on punt returns against Michigan’s archrival, Ohio State.

The Hawkeyes have had the likes of Reggie Roby, Rob Houghtlin, and Tim Dwight come through Iowa City and used special teams as a way to provide Hawkeye fans with everlasting memories.

When Iowa and Michigan meet under the lights of Kinnick Stadium on Saturday evening, special teams and the battle for field position will likely play a vital role.

“Field position’s always going to be a big deal,” junior offensive lineman Julian Vandervelde said. “It’s something that maybe people don’t think about as much as a lot of other stats, but when you get down on that field, and you look, and you got to go 40 yards to get a touchdown, that’s a lot different mentally for you. You’re more amped. You’re more ready to push that thing.”

Two of the best punters in the Big Ten will be on display Saturday, Iowa junior Ryan Donahue and Michigan senior Zoltan Mesko.

Not only is Mesko one of the conference’s elite punters, he also is one of the Wolverines’ most well-respected players.

Two years ago, when then-head coach Lloyd Carr was asked about his 2007 squad, picked in the preseason to win the Big Ten, he mentioned Mesko before saying anything about Jake Long, Chad Henne, or Mike Hart — all of whom were in Chicago with Carr that day.

In July, Mesko was among three Wolverines current head coach Rich Rodriguez took with him to Chicago for the 2009 Big Ten media days.

Rodriguez emphasized the leadership Mesko had demonstrated both on and off the field as Michigan goes through rebuilding under the second-year head coach.

“He’s kind of one of our team leaders, not only with the specialists but also the other guys on the team, because he’s a tremendous worker,” Rodriguez said on July 27. “When our guys go and do workouts and things like that, he’s right there in the middle of it. He’s a very talented young man and an outstanding individual.

“We think he’s, if not the best, certainly one of the best in the entire country.”

And certainly, Mesko’s career statistics back up this claim pretty well. Last season, as Michigan endured its worst season in school history, going 3-9, he was one of the few gems. The 2009 Playboy Preseason All-American had 80 punts last year, averaging a net of 43 yards per punt.

Five games into 2009, he has punted 25 times, tied for the most by any punter in the conference thus far. He also has averaged 44 yards per punt, an improvement on what he accomplished last year.

In the Wolverines’ 31-7 win over Western Michigan on Sept. 5, he boomed a 66-yard kick. Against Indiana on Sept. 26, Mesko, who came to Michigan from Romania via Twinsburg, Ohio, had a season-high seven punts in which he averaged 48.1 yards per kick.

He credits his ongoing success at Michigan to becoming more sound mentally as a punter.

“I’m more focused on every kick,” he said in Chicago on July 28. “I know what I need to do on every punt. I’m not just whaling at the ball. I’m more fundamentally sound as far as technique goes.”

For the Hawkeyes, the special teams have proved to be crucial in 2009. In five weeks, the Hawks have garnered three Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors.

Two blocked field goals by sophomore defensive end Broderick Binns and junior linebacker Jeremiha Hunter allowed Iowa to escape with a 17-16 win over Northern Iowa on Sept. 5. The second blocked kick by Hunter earned him the first special-team accolade from the conference.

Donahue’s punting allowed the Hawkeyes to manhandle Arizona on Sept. 19. That afternoon, the Evergreen Park, Ill., native recorded five punts with a net average of 51 yards per punt and a long kick of 62 yards.

And in the Penn State game, junior defensive end Adrian Clayborn blocked a punt and returned it 53 yards for a touchdown, igniting Iowa in its 21-10 victory over the then-No. 5 Nittany Lions in State College, Pa., on Sept. 26.

“It says wonders about our team,” Donahue said on Sept. 29. “It says wonders about individuals on our team. Like everyone says, it’s ‘team-first,’ but when you see individual performances like that, that’s what makes up a good team.

“To see those accolades getting to the correct guys who are working their butt off during practice, it’s really good to see.”

Donahue’s punting has gained the attention of his teammates, and Ferentz credited his kicking as being a key in that opening win against Northern Iowa. The coach said Donahue was “by far” the Hawkeyes’ top performer that afternoon.

“He performed extraordinarily well. He’s putting the ball where you want, and he’s also getting great hang time,” Ferentz said after that game. “We are counting on him to continue to perform like that, and it’s a great weapon to have.”

Against the Panthers, Donahue had five punts, including a long one of 56 yards, that went for 42.8 net yards on average. Through five games, the 6-3 punter has boomed 23 balls and produced a net average of 41.5 yards per kick, which is also his career average through two-and-a-half seasons.

On Saturday night, football’s version of a battle royal will occur in Kinnick Stadium. The hype might be focused on how Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier handles the pressure he’ll get from the Hawkeye defense, but don’t be surprised if special teams seize the spotlight.

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