(Final of the “Outback Bowl” look ahead series. I’ll link them together later tonight. This is a look at special teams.)
That’s where we start with special teams, a look at kicker.
Sophomore Trent Mossbrucker was a more-than-respectable 13 of 15 before a certain 31-yarder against Penn State. You all know what happened. It was a windy, dreary day. It was the penultimate play of the game. So, coach Kirk Ferentz tells junior Daniel Murray to start warming up. When it came down to it, Ferentz looked to Murray and his experience.
Murray made the kick and held the FG job throughout the rest of the season, probably earning a scholarship along the way.
“I can’t give him one right now,” Ferentz said toward the end of ’08. “But I think he sure helped his chances a couple weeks ago (referring to the Penn State kick). He really enhanced things.”
Two scholarship kickers?
It sounded as though Ferentz would be fine with that. He clearly recognizes the importance of points on the board. He rode Nate Kaeding and Kyle Schlicher to a pair of Big Ten titles. Kaeding and Schlicher were reasons why Iowa won so many close games during that span. The Penn State kick snapped a 0-for-9 for the Hawkeyes in games decided by three points or less.
“That’s how I’m looking at it right now,” Ferentz said. “I think we’ve got two guys. Not that anybody gave up on Daniel, because we didn’t. He’s played a prominent role all season long. We had to make a decision a couple weeks ago, at least I felt like we did. You know more than a couple weeks ago. And he got his opportunity, stepped up and did a great job, did a great job Saturday. I we feel about our kickers probably like we do about our quarterbacks.”
When Ferentz said this, Iowa had two quarterbacks with starting experience, Ricky Stanzi and Jake Christensen. Now, Christensen is gone.
After he was passed over in favor of Murray, Mossbrucker missed two PATs against Purdue. He re-gained PAT duties in Iowa’s 55-0 victory over Minnesota but yielded those duties to Murray for the Outback Bowl.
Mossbrucker is in the Iowa record books. His 70 points last season (13 of 15 FGs and 31 of 33 PATs) were an Iowa freshman scoring record, beating Kaeding’s true freshman mark of 62 and Jeff Skillett’s freshman record of 64.
Where does he stand?
Iowa’s kickers combined for 19 of 24, a .792 percentage good for fifth in the Big Ten. Not bad, but not Big Ten title-caliber.
Murray finished 6 of 9. A closer look at his numbers shows that Iowa coaches might shade to Murray for distance. He made 4 of 6 attempts from 30 to 49 yards. Mossbrucker was 6 of 8 from 30 to 39 yards with no attempts from beyond 40. Murray’s long was 45; Mossbrucker’s was 39. Murray missed a 45-yard in the Outback Bowl and was 0-for-1 from 50-plus. Murray also handled the kickoffs.
There was also the Michigan State game. Granted, this was very early in Mossbrucker’s career. But instead of trying field goals on fourth downs from MSU’s 27- and 22-yard lines, the Hawkeyes failed on fourth-down attempts and the Hawkeyes fell.
Ferentz said in normal playing conditions he’d prefer setting up for field goals with the ball inside the 25-yard line.
At the time, Mossbrucker was 19 with a career-long FG of 39 yards.
“I’ve got every confidence in him, and I don’t want that to be lost over the decisions the other day,” Ferentz said. “They had really nothing to do with him. Maybe a little bit to do with him, but it’s not like we are going to — he doesn’t have training wheels on his bike. He’s playing and he’s like the rest of the guys, and I’ve got every confidence that he can handle the situations that are out there.”
There doesn’t appear to be any clarity here.
Iowa’s punter is junior Ryan Donahue. Ferentz can throw away the key here for another two years. He averaged 41.6 yards a punt and had 11 go 50-plus. After this season, it’s time to look for an apprentice.
The rest of the units:
— Kick coverage took a hit when junior Jayme Murphy suffered a concussion against Illinois. It showed against Minnesota, when the Gophers’ kick return yardage equaled the distance between Minneapolis and Iowa City. (The upside, it was 55-0.) Murphy was terrific in his gunner role on kick offs. Diagnosed with four concussions in the last two years, he is scheduled to see a head specialist for an evaluation this season.
— Sophomore running back Jewel Hampton injected some life into Iowa’s kick returns, averaging 23.3 yards on 23 returns, which was good for sixth in the Big Ten. Hampton is squarely in the mix for running back this season. Iowa coaches have told true freshman Brandon Wegher that he’s a candidate for kick return. That’s an intriguing possibility.
— Iowa’s punt coverage might never be better than last season. Iowa allowed a grand total of 12 returns for a grand total of 60 yards, 5 yards a return which was ninth in the nation and first in the Big Ten.
— Can junior WR Colin Sandeman be Andy Brodell? Iowa has needs at wideout, but Brodell was a steady, dependable punt returner for the last two seasons. He finished third in the Big Ten with 10.6 yards on 36 returns. The punt return job is open and Sandeman is first in line. The 6-1, 200-pounder returned five last season for 30 yards.
The recent transfers — DB Diauntae Morrow, LB/DB Lance Tillison and, a little farther back, LB Dezman Moses — might put a dent in special teams. Tillison and Morrow were contributors. This is where, if the program is working the way it needs to be, we get introduced to players like Jack Swanson, a redshirt freshman safety, or Greg Castillo, a redshirt freshman cornerback, or Joe Conklin, a walk-on junior defensive back.
Special teams reflects the overall health of a program.