Special teams looking to get back on track


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Maybe this is why Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz is so superstitious.

On Sept. 30 — three days after Adrian Clayborn returned a blocked punt 53 yards against Penn State to help the Hawkeyes win, 21-10, on the road — someone asked the 11-year head coach, “Is this the best you guys have played on special teams in four or five years?”

Ferentz responded by saying, “We are doing some good things in the punting game, and our field-goal kicking has been good for the most part. Our field-goal blocking has been extraordinary. And punt block, some great efforts there.”

It wasn’t an overly complimentary quotation from the head coach — especially considering Iowa’s special teams arguably swung two of his team’s first four contests. But it was more revealing than most comments by Ferentz, who is always careful to never say too much about a good thing.

Almost exactly a month later, Ferentz’s team hosted Indiana on Halloween. After a shanked punt, a missed field goal that went barely 3 feet off the ground, and two muffed punts deep inside the Hawks’ territory (one of which led to a Hoosier touchdown), the Hawkeyes endured their worst special-team outing of the year.

“That was a tough first half,” Ferentz said. “Hopefully, it’s a one-game deal. We all know we can play better special teams. … I am hopeful we got it all out of our system. Now we can get back to normal operations.”

In all fairness to Iowa, the team is down to its third-string punt returner after losing Paul Chaney Jr. for the year with a knee injury and Colin Sandeman with a concussion for last week’s game.

On Tuesday, Ferentz compared the punt-return situation to the Hawkeyes’ injury problems at running back. After Shonn Greene left school early for the NFL, the next two guys in line — Jewel Hampton (knee) and Adam Robinson (ankle) — have subsequently been lost for the season.

Similarly, Andy Brodell’s exit left Chaney and Sandeman as the primary returners. Now that those two are hurt — Ferentz did, however, say Sandeman could return next week against Ohio State — junior Amari Spievey and true freshman Keenan Davis have been thrust into that role.

At his weekly press conference, Ferentz said, “Anyone else you want to throw in there? [Safety Tyler] Sash? Throw him in there.”

While the situation at punt returner remains unsolved, Ferentz said he can still rely on punter Ryan Donahue, despite his 8-yard boot in the Indiana game.

The wind on Oct. 31 was howling at speeds of around 20 mph, and on that particular kick, the wind was directly in his face.

“It affected the game definitely,” Donahue said about the short punt, which gave Indiana the ball on Iowa’s 35-yard line. “It affected field position definitely. It was a tough day.”

All year long, however, he has shown a penchant for pinning opponents deep inside their own red zone. Nineteen of his 40 punts this season have been inside the 20-yard line.

Murray, too, had been relatively consistent all year long until last week, when he missed a 44-yarder in ugly fashion. A week previously at Michigan State, the senior booted three critical field goals in Iowa’s 15-13 win. Also, against Wisconsin on Oct. 17, his 48-yarder sealed a 20-10 victory in the fourth quarter.

“My first field goal was like a golf shot of some sort,” Murray said. “We’ll try to get better this week, and, hopefully, we can turn around on special teams.”

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