By Pat Harty
LeVar Woods grew up in northwest Iowa as a Nebraska fan.
It was his dream to play football for the Big Red dynasty, but they apparently didn’t see it that way and never offered a scholarship.
Iowa, on the other hand, believed in Woods enough to offer him a scholarship as a linebacker, and that decision by Hayden Fry in the late 1990s continues to pay dividends for the Hawkeyes.
The latest example was Iowa’s 28-21 come-from-behind victory over Nebraska on Friday at a sold-out Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Iowa doesn’t beat the Cornhuskers without its special teams impacting the game in so many positive ways under Woods’ direction.
From Caleb Shudak’s four field goals to Henry Marchese’s blocked punt that linebacker Kyler Fisher returned 14 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter to Tory Taylor’s punting, the importance of Iowa’s special teams can’t be overstated.
It was the difference in the game, according to Nebraska head coach Scott Frost, who specifically pointed to the blocked punt as the biggest difference.
Nebraska still was leading 21-9 when Marchese crashed in from the edge to block the punt.
You could see the confidence being sucked from the Nebraska players after the blocked punt.
Nebraska finished the season 3-9 with all nine losses by nine or fewer points.
The Cornhuskers were without starting quarterback Adrian Martinez in Friday’s game, and his absence certainly made a difference.
But his replacement, redshirt freshman Logan Smothers, hurt Iowa as both a runner and passer and played well enough for Nebraska to have led 21-6 in the third quarter.
The Iowa defense overcame a shaky first half and played more like fans are used to seeing in the second half.
But the one constant for Iowa in Friday’s game was its special teams.
Shudak made all four of his field-goal attempts, including one from 51 yards, and the sixth-year senior from Council Bluffs is now 22-of-25 on the season.
His performance combined with Taylor repeatedly flipping field position helped to keep Iowa within striking distance when the offense and defense both were struggling.
And that’s a credit to Woods for having his players ready and focused on the task at hand,
Marchese is a fifth-year senior who has been buried on the depth chart, first at receiver and now as a defensive back. The Illinois native could’ve easily transferred to another school, but he has stayed the course and embraced his role on special teams.
Kyler Fisher is a third-year sophomore who joined the Iowa program as a walk-on defensive back from tiny Farnhamville. He might never start at linebacker, but he is starting on special teams, and that matters.
It matters because Iowa pours a lot into its special teams, partly out of necessity from being in so many close games.
Kirk Ferentz’s decision to make Woods his special teams coordinator in March 2017 was the first step in taking special teams to a new level.
Woods traveled half way across the world to recruit Taylor from Australia, and Woods also helped to convince Shudak to stay at Iowa even though Shudak had to wait for five seasons, first behind Miguel Recinos and then Keith Duncan, for his chance to be the full-time starting kicker.
For most players, even the great Bob Sanders, special teams is the first step in contributing on game day.
LeVar Wood made his first mark as a Hawkeye on special teams, and he also excelled on special teams in the NFL.
It’s not as fun as being a full-time starter, but special teams often can be the difference in winning and losing as was the case on Friday.
Kirk Ferentz has made countless decisions that have helped to sustain success over 23 seasons, and his decision to make Woods his special teams coordinator is among his best.
A team that is dominant on special teams often finds ways to win games it could’ve easily lost.
Iowa was trailing Illinois 10-0 last Saturday when Charlie Jones returned a kick 100 yards for a touchdown late in the first quarter.
Iowa would go on to prevail 33-23 and Iowa’s performance on special teams is what separated the two teams more than anything.
And while some like to poke fun at Iowa’s offensive woes, no team should have to apologize for being 10-2.
Iowa has won 10 regular-season games for just the fourth time in 23 seasons under Kirk Ferentz.
But no way would it have come close to happening without Woods and his cohorts having constantly risen to the occasion on special teams.