Five unlikely players had a key role in Iowa’s 33-7 victory over Northern Illinois on Saturday, including two that didn’t even play
By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The ability to handle personal setbacks and disappointment is one of many attributes that goes into making a good football player and teammate.
This column focuses on five members of the Iowa football team who overcame a personal setback to play a key role, either directly or indirectly, in this past Saturday’s 33-7 victory over Northern Illinois in the season opener at Kinnick Stadium.
The five players are junior punter Colten Rastetter, sophomore running back Toren Young, senior linebacker Jack Hockaday and sophomore offensive tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs.
Rastetter, Young and Hockaday all made significant contributions during the game, while Jackson and Wirfs both played key roles in the days leading up to the game.
Rastetter was the only one among the five players who started in Saturday’s game, but he hardly had the confidence of fans, who were skeptical after watching him average just 37.8 yards on 55 punts last season.
It was widely assumed that sophomore Ryan Gersonde would be Iowa’s starting punter this season because for one, he was listed as the starter heading into preseason practice, and because Rastetter had performed so poorly last season.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz raised a few eyebrows last Tuesday when he said the depth chart was wrong and that Rastetter would be the starter.
The reaction on social media was swift and mostly unpleasant, but feelings have since changed in the wake of Rastetter’s performance against Northern Illinois. He played a key role in the battle for field position by averaging 53.8 yards on four punts, with a long of 69 yards.
Rastetter's performance was especially crucial in the first half as the Iowa offense sputtered.
And though it was only one game, it showed what Rastetter is capable of doing when he executes. It also might be a sign that Rastetter has improved, but only time and performance will confirm that.
Young, meanwhile, didn’t just start Saturday’s game on the bench, he was the third option at running back behind sophomore Ivory Kelly-Martin and junior-college transfer Mekhi Sargent.
Young didn’t get his first carry until the third quarter, but the Wisconsin native was ready when his number was called. Young ripped off runs of 40 and 24 yards and led Iowa with 84 rushing yards on eight attempts.
“My job is to play when my number is called, and when it's not, it’s to support and coach the other guys,” Young said. “We are running back by committee, and it’s situational decisions and best fit for that play called.”
That is a mature and unselfish way to handle a difficult situation in which Young had dropped two spots on the depth chart. He was listed as the starter throughout spring practice and heading into preseason practice, but then fell behind Kelly-Martin and Sargent during preseason practice.
Ferentz tried to downplay the demotion by saying that all three running backs would contribute. Ferentz then proved it by calling Young’s number with the game still very much in doubt early in the third quarter and with the Iowa offense struggling to sustain drives.
Ferentz was asked after Saturday’s game if there was a conscious effort to use the 225-pound Young in the second half as a way to handle the heat and humidity.
“Not necessarily,” Ferentz said. “I don’t know how many snaps we had in the first half. We didn’t have the ball a lot, unfortunately, so we weren’t sustaining drives.
“But we wanted to play all three guys. It worked out okay for sure.”
Hockaday also started Saturday’s game on the bench behind junior Amani Jones at middle linebacker. But then Jones, who was making his first career start, struggled early in the first quarter and Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker didn’t hesitate to make a change.
Parker inserted his senior backup from central Illinois and Hockaday responded by making five tackles, including one for a loss.
“I think I said this the other day that the game action is always different than practice,” Ferentz said. “And we’ll be evaluating the team all year long. You do that. But when you have so many young players playing and guys in first-time situations, you learn more about the guys on the game field.
“So I thought Jack stepped in and did a nice job. That was great to see. Amani we think is a really good football player and he’ll be back at it.”
The challenge for Jones if he is listed behind Hockaday on the depth chart heading into this coming Saturday’s game against Iowa State is to use it as motivation and to be ready if his number is called just like Hockaday was ready this past Saturday.
It never is easy losing playing time, buy how you handle it says a lot about your character.
As for Jackson and Wirfs, their situations were different because they both missed the Northern Illinois game while serving one-game suspensions.
They were also demoted to the scout team as part of the preparation for Northern Illinois, and that proved to be hugely beneficial according to Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa.
Jackson and Wirfs both hurt the team by being suspended, but they also made the best out of a tough and disappointing situation.
“I think you can consider Tristan and (Alaric) two of the best offensive tackles in the Big Ten,” Epenesa said. “And going against them every day just kind of gives you that edge to know that you really are ready for whoever you’re going to play against because they are so good. They actually are very good offensive tackles and very good football players.
“Going against them just gives you that confidence kind of. I mean they’re so good and you’re out there working with them every single day and it gives you confidence to come into the game and play. So I was appreciative of them kind of owning their role to be on the scout team this week and just give us a good look. And they did a great job.”
So much goes into a victory, both physically and mentally.
Ferentz and his assistant coaches deserve credit for keeping all the players ready and engaged.
But the five players mentioned in this column deserve most of the credit for putting the team first and for doing whatever was necessary to win.