Commentary: Iowa should never try to field a punt again
Iowa was primed and ready to start the fourth quarter of the Oct. 5 game against Michigan State with the ball. The Hawkeyes had just forced a three and out on the Spartans, and they were about to punt the pigskin to Iowa from their own 37.
Instead of giving Iowa possession and a chance of gaining a lead, Michigan State punter Mike Sadler took the snap and ran 25 yards up field for a first down and an opportunity for his squad to build on its 6-point lead. To add insult to injury, Sadler out gained all of Iowa’s rushers for the day on that single play.
The fake punt play was called “hey diddle diddle, send Sadler up the middle,” said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio after the game, which is cute. What isn’t cute is that Iowa has given up a fourth down on fake punts four times since 2010, and three of those times Iowa has lost the game. The Hawkeyes have also fallen victim to two fake field-goal attempts during that span.
In 2010, Eastern Illinois converted a fake punt to make the game against Iowa interesting in the second quarter. Iowa went on to win 37-7. But after that game, every fake punt seems to be a nail in the metaphorical coffin for the Iowa football team.
Iowa was up 30-24 with eight minutes to go against No. 13 Wisconsin on Oct. 23 2010. Badger punter Brad Nortman took the snap on fourth down and ran it 17 yards for a first down. Wisconsin drove 80 yards and took a lead with three minutes left in the game. Bucky hung on to win, 31-30.
In the first game this year, Northern Illinois ran a fake punt that went for more than 40 yards and brought the Huskies to Iowa’s 9-yard line. The drive ended in a field goal, and Iowa went on to lose by 3.
And then there’s what happened against Michigan State.
“We may never try to return one again,” Ferentz said after the game. “It was our thinking — try to get to the return, and to their credit, they made a good call and that cost us a field goal,”
Ferentz was most likely being facetious with his statement about playing hyper-conservative on punt returns, but hear me out: Never bothering to return a punt, and just sending a preventive defensive unit and letting the ball fall harmlessly to the turf without sending a man to field it may not be such a bad idea.
Since 2010, Iowa has fielded 62 punts (not counting blocked attempts). On 62 chances, Iowa’s returners have accumulated 608 yards and 2 touchdowns, for not quite 10 yards per return, which is good but not great. But a solid chunk of those total yards came this year on Sept. 21, when Kevonte Martin-Manley returned four punts for 184 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Broncos. Take those numbers away, and Iowa has been averaging just 7 yards per punt return since 2010, with no touchdowns.
It’s not like a punt returner would be missed. Iowa doesn’t get Devin Hesters; it won’t ever win a game based on a stellar punt return. Iowa hardly utilizes a punt returner as a weapon anyway, usually employing more sure-handed players at the position over those who may be more dangerous with the ball in the open field.
Treating the punter as a threat may sound a bit like playing to not lose rather than playing to win, but it still sounds a whole lot better than allowing four fake punts to go for first downs over the course of three seasons.
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