By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa cornerback Riley Moss had just intercepted a pass in the third quarter against Purdue and was heading towards his bench when he was greeted by some of his teammates, including Matt Hankins.
In fact, Hankins was the first player to congratulate Moss for making a play that was crucial in Iowa’s 26-20 victory over the Boilermakers on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Hankins was also the player that Moss had replaced in the lineup just a few plays earlier at cornerback because Hankins had been struggling. But instead of sulking or being upset, Hankins put the team first and his unselfishness didn’t go unnoticed.
I noticed it right away from the press box, but so did the head Hawk, who was standing just a few feet from Hankins as he congratulated Moss.
“There are a lot of good things today and that was one of the best things I saw,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “I noticed that just like you did. He's the first guy out there to congratulate him. I think it's just representative of the kind of guys we have on our football team. They're great young people, they care about each other.
“And Riley ended up having the hot hand, did a really good job there. Matt's a good football player and I'm just glad both of them are back with us and we'll be a better football team with both those guys playing.”
Hankins also attended the post-game press conference, which couldn’t have been easy under the circumstances, but he made no excuses and spoke highly of Moss.
“That’s my boy, so I was happy for him, of course,” Hankins said of Moss. “I always want to celebrate with my boys when we do good.
“And we got the (win), so that’s good, too. So I’m really excited for him.”
Hankins started his fourth game of the season on Saturday, and the only reason he hadn’t started all seven games was due to a hamstring injury.
The junior from Lewisville, Tex., seemed firmly entrenched as the starter at left cornerback, but then Hankins struggled to contain Purdue freshman receiver David Bell on Saturday and was eventually benched in favor of Moss.
Bell shredded Iowa for 13 catches for 197 yards and one touchdown, with many of his catches coming against Hankins.
Some players might have sulked or made excuses or resented their replacement having success, but not Hankins.
He embraced the team-first mentality and that kind of unselfishness is huge in building and sustaining the right chemistry.
“Playing defensive back you’ve got to have confidence,” Hankins said. “There are going to be plays where you get beat. You can’t let that linger on you. So you’ve got to flip the page as I like to say. Just flip the page and get back out there and do what you’ve got to do.
“In my case, I got taken out. So as every athlete, you’re going to be disappointed when you get taken out of the game. But I’m still here to cheer my teammates on, my brothers. I’m disappointed, but I’m glad we got the win and I’m just going to work harder next week and build motivation.”
Moss was able to redeem himself on Saturday after having struggled during a 38-36 loss at Purdue last season.
Purdue had driven into Iowa territory and was trailing 13-7 when Moss intercepted a pass thrown by Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer at the Iowa 21-yard line. Moss returned the interception to the Iowa 28, and his play ultimately led to one of Keith Duncan’s four field goals in the game.
“I knew they were going to come after me, but just stuck with the game plan,” Moss said. “I knew I was ready. So I just did what I was told to do and it worked out.”
It also worked out because Hankins put the team before his own ego.
It had to be a crushing blow for Hankins to be benched in the heat of the moment, but he handled it with class and dignity.
That is a tribute not only to Hankins, but also to how he was raised.
“That’s just how I was raised, and that’s really how the whole team is really,” Hankins said. “If you get taken out, you don’t want to let your head down and show everybody that you’re sad or you’re mad then that will rub off on somebody else.
“We always want to have positive energy on the field, off the field, always team camaraderie.”
It is one thing to say the right things during easy times, but a person often shows his or her true character during times of adversity.
And for a college football player, there are few things worse than getting benched.
The challenge for Hankins, as he pointed out, is to use what happened on Saturday as fuel and motivation for the rest of the season.
Iowa still has five games left in the regular season, so there is plenty of time for Hankins to either keep his starting position or win it back.
Just because he was benched on Saturday against Purdue doesn’t mean the move is permanent.
Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker has shown a willingness to make personnel changes during a game, and Hankins has been on both sides of Parker's benchings.
Hankins and Moss will continue to compete and push each other in practice and that should help to create a healthy environment for getting better.
Hankins started at cornerback in all eight of the games that he played in last season. He also made his first career start against Nebraska as a true freshman in 2017.
Hankins earned the start against Nebraska as a true freshman after having performed well during a loss to Purdue in the previous week. Parker inserted Hankins in the third quarter against Purdue two years ago and Hankins seized the opportunity, much like Moss did against Purdue on Saturday.
There were so many little things that contributed to Iowa’s victory on Saturday, from key blocks to timely catches to drive-stopping tackles.
But the way in which Hankins handled being benched is what I’ll probably remember the most about this game because it was first class all the way.
It was a tribute to Hankins and to the Iowa culture under Kirk Ferentz.