This is the sixth installment of The Stanford Daily’s seven-part preview series on the Iowa Hawkeyes, who will face Stanford in the 102nd Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California on Jan. 1, 2016. This piece will look at Iowa’s special teams. Previous parts can be read at the following links:
The low-down: There’s nothing all too “special” about Iowa’s special teams — it’s a solid, reliable unit that will get the job done without many mistakes at the end of the day, but it won’t wow you with dynamic, game-changing returns or punts boomed into the stratosphere.
When he isn’t busy with his day job being one of the best lock-down cornerbacks in the nation, Desmond King also moonlights as the kick and punt returner, where he averages a decent 25.6 yards per kickoff return and 12.7 yards per punt return but hasn’t had a return touchdown all season due to a lack of true breakaway ability and just average blocking.
Meanwhile, the Iowa kicker, Marshall Koehn, has a dynamite leg (as evidenced by his season-long of 57 yards, which we’ll get to later), but has been plagued by consistency issues, as he’s missed five(!!!) extra points this season and has also missed one kick from inside 30 yards. Senior punter Dillon Kidd averaged well over 40 yards per punt in the first six games of the season but has since struggled, averaging well below 40 in each of his last four games.
Best player: For lack of too many other choices, the default pick for this slot is Koehn, who is a pretty darn good 8-of-10 from 40 yards or longer this season despite his inconsistency on chip shots and has converted 79 percent of his kicks on the year, good for fourth in the Big Ten. For an Iowa team that has played in more than its fair share of close games this season, having a reasonably reliable kicker like Koehn has been a must, and indeed, his kicks have accounted for the Hawkeyes’ margins of victory in close wins over Pittsburgh, Illinois and Minnesota.
Best performance: The Week 3 matchup between a then-unheralded Iowa and a Pitt team that flirted with the top 25 all season didn’t necessarily seem like a marquee game at the time, but yielded one of the defining moments of the Hawkeyes’ season thanks to the dynamite performance of Koehn.
After opening all scoring with a 43-yard boot in the first quarter, the senior stepped up in a 24-24 tie with time running out in the fourth quarter and delivered a perfect kick from 57 yards out to seal a big win for Iowa in its toughest non-conference matchup of the season. The game-winner was the second-longest kick in the nation this season despite being only Koehn’s second career attempt from longer than 50 yards.
Worst performance: It’s tough to isolate any single game as the unit’s worst because, as mentioned above, the team didn’t make too many mistakes over the course of the season on special teams, but the closest thing to a “bad game” happened in the Hawkeyes’ 40-20 win over Purdue, in which Koehn missed two extra points and Kidd had one of his worst punting averages of the season, booting three for 109 yards for an average of 36 yards per punt. Not that it made too much of a difference, of course, as Iowa still cruised to a victory over the Boilermakers — but in a closer game, it very well might have.
Highlights of the season: And here’s the video of that dramatic 57-yard game-winner against Pitt, in all its Big Ten Networks glory:
I’ll give the kick itself a 10/10, but the celebration could have used work — because the gold standard for kicker celebrations will forever belong to Michigan State kicker Michael Geiger’s windmill down the field after he beat Ohio State with a game-winner.
Biggest questions: This Rose Bowl promises to be a physical, hard-fought, tight game, which means that it could very well come down to a battle of field position and timely kicks to decide who ultimately prevails. Firstly, given Iowa’s lack of game-changing ability in the special teams department and Stanford having Christian McCaffrey, are the Hawkeyes going to be able to dig deep for a momentum-changer from special teams if the offense struggles to move the ball?
Secondly, if the game turns into one of those Rose Bowl punt-fests (remember Wisconsin?), given that Kidd has struggled as of late in the punting department, particularly with distance, Stanford might well have advantage in changing field position with the reliable right leg of Alex Robinson. Meanwhile, Koehn’s inconsistency from short yardage has been well-documented throughout the season, and Conrad Ukropina just happens to be one of the most accurate kickers in the country. Can Iowa’s specialists keep up with their reliable Stanford counterparts when the pressure is on?
Matchup with Stanford: One thing that Koehn has been excellent at is getting touchbacks on his kickoffs (he’s 19th in the country with 57.5 percent of his kickoffs being downed in the end zone) which is bad news for Stanford, which figures to want to get the ball into McCaffrey’s hands as often as is humanly possible. This way, Iowa doesn’t need to sacrifice field position to kick the ball away from McCaffrey, and in a tight game, those yards really matter.
However, Iowa likely won’t see too many of those return yards for itself either, as King isn’t necessarily in the same vein of returners as Charles Nelson, C.J. Sanders or Adoree’ Jackson, who have burned Stanford and have changed the scopes of games with their dynamic returning. In that regard, things should balance out to neither team’s real advantage in the return game, leaving the game more in the hands of the offenses and defenses, though Stanford’s special teams units are far more likely to come through with a big play when the stakes are highest.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.