By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – It occurred to me as the Iowa offense was trying to drive into field-goal range in the fourth quarter against Northwestern this past Saturday that something odd might happen.
There was a chance, depending on the distance of the field goal, that senior kicker Caleb Shudak would get the call over fellow senior kicker Keith Duncan, even though Duncan is the starter and a consensus All-American from last season after having made 29-of-34 field-goal attempts.
Shudak reportedly has the stronger leg as he showed by almost making a 52-yard field-goal attempt on the final play of the first half against Northwestern. His kick had plenty of distance, but deflected off the right goal post.
Unfortunately, for both Shudak and Duncan, neither had a chance to kick a potential game-winning field goal because the Iowa offense was on its own 28-yard line when sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras threw his third interception of the game to secure Northwestern’s 21-20 victory at Kinnick Stadium.
“Caleb made a great effort there at the end of the half to give us a chance on that one, and that one kick is probably representative of our game today: Close but not close enough,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz.
Iowa fell to 0-2 for the first time since the 2000 season with both losses by a combined five points.
Fans are understandably upset, frustrated and concerned with Iowa now preparing to face Michigan State (1-1) on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa has only scored three points in the second half in each game this season, so it would be easy to dwell on the negatives because there is plenty to go around.
But this is a glass-half-full column, and a chance to point out just how loyal Shudak has been to the Iowa program.
A lot of kickers in Shudak’s position would’ve have transferred after Duncan secured the starting position last season, and then became a star.
But not Shudak.
He decided to finish what he started at Iowa, and that says a lot about his character.
It certainly helps that Shudak was put on scholarship this past spring, and that he handles kickoffs for Iowa.
But it’s Duncan who gets most of the attention, and almost all of the chances to kick field goals, and deservedly so, because Duncan has developed into a quite a weapon for Iowa.
Duncan is almost automatic from up to 40 yards, and he has performed well under pressure, making game-winning field goals against Michigan in 2016, and against Nebraska last season.
It’s also worth mentioning that Duncan stayed at Iowa after losing the starting job to Miguel Recinos in 2017 and 2018, so he and Shudak have that in common. They’ve both been loyal and committed to the program.
So there is no kicker controversy at Iowa, or any hard feelings.
Duncan, obviously, deserves to be the starter based on his performance, but Shudak deserves praise for putting the team above his own personal goals.
Shudak had entered the NCAA transfer portal at one point, and it was easy to see why with Duncan firmly entrenched as the starter.
The decision to put Shudak on scholarship in the spring was crucial in him staying at Iowa, where he has earned Academic All-Big Ten three years in a row, Dean’s List recognition throughout his career, and made the President’s list this past spring.
It might have been necessary to put Shudak on scholarship in order to keep him at Iowa because it seems likely he would’ve had interest from other schools based on the strength of his leg, and his grades.
“We’re going to do everything we can to keep Caleb on the roster,” Kirk Ferentz said in February.
Kirk Ferentz has said multiple times that he trusts both of his kickers, and that Shudak is talented enough to be a starter.
Shudak, a native of Council Bluffs, has handled all the kickoff duties since the start of last season, and he had 31 touchbacks on 75 kicks last season. He averaged 61.4 yards on eight kickoffs, with six touchbacks, against the University of Southern California in the 2019 Holiday Bowl.
Shudak is a weapon in his own right because it can’t be understated just how important touchbacks are to a defense.
He is also a Hawkeye for life, even though his father, Jeff Shudak, was a kicker for Iowa State.
Caleb Shudak could also return next season since the NCAA has granted an extra year of eligibility due to the virus.
But Duncan could also return next season, so what’s the point in wondering about the future?
Instead, just enjoy the present, with one of the most accurate and celebrated kickers in program history, and with a backup whose loyalty and leg strength also make him a factor, and a source of inspiration.
It’s easy, after two losses, to overlook the fact that Iowa has two capable kickers, to go along with Australia native Tory Taylor at punter.
Taylor has punted 10 time this season for an impressive 46.1 yard average.
Junior defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon also has performed well in the first two game and has 18 tackles, including a team-high 5.5 for losses, so far this season. That is tied for the most tackles on the team with defensive back Jack Koerner and linebacker Nick Niemann.
It’s not unusual for a defensive back or a linebacker to lead a team in tackles, but a defensive tackle rarely achieves that distinction.
So yes, this season has gotten off to a rough start, but there are some silver linings, including a star on the rise in Nixon, and a loyal backup kicker in Shudak, whose willingness to stay the course deserves to be recognized.