Unlikely Iowa stars make "the play of the game" against NIU


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One is a punter who had hoped to be a quarterback. The other is a former scapegoat who lost his starting job early last season.

Things haven’t worked out the way John Wienke and Greg Castillo hoped. Their paths through the Hawkeye program have wound through hope, obscurity, and frustration. But those paths crossed on Sept. 1 in Soldier Field. It saved the game for Iowa.

“Absolutely the play of the game,” quarterback James Vandenberg said.

Three days earlier, Wienke made a strange request of Vandenberg. He had been working on his punts after practice and running down the field to retrieve the ball after each kick. Vandenberg agreed to catch a few.

More than a year earlier, Wienke lost a competition to Vandenberg for the starting quarterback job. The next summer, Wienke booted the ball across the practice field and over a fence one day.

Special-team coach Lester Erb saw it and told the all-state high-school punter to come early to work with special teams the next day. Wienke became a Hawkeye punter.

But that didn’t work out, either. Freshman Connor Kornbrath showed a powerful leg in fall camp this season, and Wienke lost another position battle.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz still had a plan. He told Wienke the team might use him as a short-yardage punter. Kornbrath had a more powerful leg, but the veteran Wienke could more precisely place his punts.

“We felt like if we could divide the labor a little bit, that might be better for Connor,” Ferentz said. “And it gives John one more thing to have ownership in. He’s just a great attitude guy, and he’s a good football player. Just got beat out by a better player, quite frankly.”

As that “better player” caught Wienke’s practice punts, he was impressed.

“He was landing it inside the 8[-yard line] every time,” Vandenberg said. “He’s a guy who has really taken his new role and run with it.”

Weinke trotted onto the field for his first college punt in the fourth quarter. Just as he had been practicing, the senior kicked the ball on its point, rather than the broad side, in hopes it would bounce backward.

“I think I hit it right,” he said. “It felt good.”

Another senior dashed down the field when the ball was snapped. Greg Castillo had entered last season as Iowa’s starting cornerback. But after Iowa State quarterback Steele Jantz shredded the Hawkeye secondary, targeting Castillo several times, coaches sent the Mount Laurel, N.J., native to the bench.

Castillo carved out a role for himself on special teams. He entered this year as the Hawkeyes’ top punt-coverage gunner, who streaks down the outside of the field before the ball is kicked.

Castillo sprinted down the sideline and curled in toward the center of the field as Wienke’s punt sailed toward the end zone. The punt bounced inside the 10-yard line, and Castillo dove for it. He put a few fingers on the ball. It fell to the ground on the 1-yard line.  

“Great play to keep it out of the end zone,” cornerback Micah Hyde said. “Play of the game, honestly. I’m happy for him. His whole career, Greg always stays ready.”

The Iowa defense forced a quick punt, and the offense took advantage of its great field position to score a game-winning touchdown minutes later.

Wienke and Castillo had teamed up to save the Hawkeyes from an upset loss.

“Especially since that Iowa State game was a tough game on me, it was nice to get out and just play,” Castillo said. “It was nice to make a play for the team.”

Weinke agreed.

“Coaches have asked something of me, and I’m trying to do it to the best of my ability,” he said. “You can say I haven’t played much at quarterback — that’s fine, whatever. I’m just trying to find something I can do to help out this team.”

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