Expectations of a possible championship year for Iowa football in 2014 seemed to hinge on visions of a powerful offense infused with new speed,and a stout defense, especially up front (plus a schedule conducive to delusions of starting 10-0). But the Iowa special teams broke in a lot of new faces after graduating four-year placekicker Mike Meyer, and simply not employing 2013 punter Connor Kornbrath or 2013 primary punt returner Kevonte Martin-Manley in anything resembling their former capacities. We know the general story: 7-5 against that schedule. But how did the newcomer-laden special teams perform?
To start with probably the brightest spot among Iowa's specialty units, the kickoff team played at a nationally elite level. No joke. Iowa's opponents averaged only 15.6 yards per return, with a long return for the year of a very pedestrian 26 yards. Iowa's average return allowed ranked 4th in FBS (1st in the B1G), so kickoff coverage was stellar for Iowa this year.
That's assuming it even had to do anything, as Marshall Koehn booted 42 touchbacks on 63 kickoffs. After performing a reasonable amount of research, I could not find any compilations of touchback statistics for the 2014 season, but that seems outrageously good as well. For some comparison, opposing kickers booted touchbacks against Iowa at half the rate Koehn did (20 on 60 kickoffs). So in a season that has been short on praise for the team or even portions of it larger than Brandon Scherff, kudos to the kickoff team for quietly dominating this year.
Things weren't all sunshine and rainbows for Koehn in his capacity as Iowa's field goal kicker. He started the year 2-for-5, with misses from 37, 37, and 35 yards, and was benched momentarily in favor of Mick Ellis in the Ball State game. Koehn's accuracy was so shaky early in the season that he and Ellis were still sharing duties heading into the Iowa State game (in spite of Ellis noobing a 29-yarder in his only attempt against Ball State). Koehn won the job for good, though, when he ran on during a confused scramble against ISU and nailed a 44-yarder to knot that game at 17 with 4:08 to go. Iowa went on to beat ISU in overtime [not true], and Koehn only missed one more field goal on the season, a 46-yarder on a very windy day at Illinois [true!].
Koehn and Ellis combined to be 12-of-17 on the year, good for 72nd nationally percentage-wise. Although perhaps slightly misleading, given how Koehn righted the ship, that ranking is about on par with the impact Iowa's placekickers had. The early struggles only nearly sank Iowa against Ball State, and did not actually do so. Iowa missed exactly zero field goals in games it lost. Koehn's biggest field goal seems to have been his longest: a 52-yarder at Pitt, without which Iowa would have been protecting a 1-point lead on Pitt's final drive, rather than the still-uncomfortable-but-not-nearly-as-much-so 4-point lead that it had. All said, the placekicking turned out surprisingly solid, but was not a huge difference-maker—possibly due to the Ball Coach-in-Chief attempting fourth-down conversions at a seemingly much greater rate than he has before.
Kickoff Return Unit
This was another solid, but not difference-making area for Iowa. As a team, the Hawkeyes ranked 43rd nationally (5th in the B1G) in kickoff returns, at 22.0 yards per. Riley McCarron wins the Outlier.com Small Sample Size of the Year Award, by leading the team at 36.0 yards per return on 1 return, with a long of 36. Congratulations, Riley! Second on the team in kickoff return average was...Mark Weisman, who averaged 29.0 yards on three returns, mostly thanks to a 50-yard runback of UNI's season-opening boot, which feels like it happened about a decade ago. The actual leading contributor on kickoff returns for Iowa was freshman Jonathan Parker, who logged 475 yards on 20 returns, good for 23.8 yards per, with a long of 54. Parker also figures to be Iowa's leading contributor in this area going forward into 2015, although the Hawkeyes have very little continuity in returners, even when leaders are returning (see Punt Return Unit below), so who really knows about next year?
This isn't really a unit, but it's the last positive (mostly) I have to talk about, so I would like to address it before telling you just how bad Iowa is at both sides of the punting game.
Earlier in the season, a certain prescient minor (understatement) contributor to this finest of blogs suggested--without proposing any sort of method for doing so--that Iowa resume trying to block kicks like it did in the early Ferentzian glory days. A few days later, Ben Niemann, a twelfth-string (or so) linebacker (?) blocked a punt, scooped it, and scored a touchdown that opened up the Hawkeyes' slaughter of Northwestern. Later, Carl Davis broke through and totally stuffed a Nebraska field goal attempt, which probably could have been scooped and scored by at least one player on each team, but it was a Big Ten game, which ensured maximum politeness and confusion, with minimal assertiveness (nobody scored). Iowa's two blocks tied it for 40th in the nation, so kudos to Niemann and Big Carl for breaking through and making plays there. Iowa did have one punt blocked, but it happened in the Minnesota game where Iowa had much bigger struggles, and it netted +14 yards, which is not totally disastrous in comparison to Iowa's punting game in general (see below), so I'm not going to dwell on it.
I get that "punting is winning" is mostly just a joke, and that it really gets funnier the worse Iowa actually is at punting, but seriously...punting, for Iowa, is NOT winning. In 2014, Iowa ranked 114th nationally and 12th in the B1G in net punting average, at 33.7 net yards per punt. Iowa's punt return defense ranked 121st nationally and 14th in the B1G [dead last!], giving up 15.4 yards per return. Nebraska's De'Mornay Pierson-El was primarily responsible for the horribawfulness of Iowa's punt return average allowed, notching 134 yards on three returns, including an 80-yard touchdown. Omitting Pierson-El's returns, Iowa still allowed 7.4 yards per return (81 yards on 11), which would be 64th nationally, so punt coverage was not really a plus for Iowa heading into the Nebraska game, either.
It may not be a surprise that Iowa's net punting average is so poor, given the similarly poor ranking of Iowa's punt coverage, but Iowa's gross punting average of 38.4 ranked an also-not-sterling (trying to be polite) 113th nationally. So the punting itself was not winning. The punt coverage was not winning. Altogether this unit was poor statistically, and the most melt-down-y unit during the Nebraska meltdown. Yikes.
Punt Return Unit
Like Weisman and McCarron on kickoff returns, Ben Niemann (17 yard "return" of the block vs. jNW) and Drew Ott (12 yard "return" of Nebraska's ButtPunt(TM)) led Iowa in punt return average. Including those two plays, Iowa ranked 105th nationally (14th in the B1G...again) in punt return average, at 5.2 yards per return. Outside of those two plays, Iowa netted 89 yards on 21 returns (4.2 per) for the season. Nebraska's Pierson-El exceeded that yardage total in the fourth quarter on Black Friday.
Matt Vandeberg led the "traditional" punt returners on the squad at 7.0 yards per return (77 yards on 11 returns) with a long of 23, so he at least did something. McCarron, by comparison, averaged 1.6 yards on the eight occasions he fielded the ball and attempted to advance it. Iowa needs playmakers in so many areas right now, it may be silly to single this one out, but one thing that puzzles about the punt returning lineup is that Kevonte Martin-Manley led the Hawkeyes in punt returns in 2013 (15.7 yards per, 2 TD), but did not field punts this year. Granted, KMM's 2013 return numbers were boosted by (or mostly consisted of) one monster game against a terrible Western Michigan team, and he did muff a punt in the Outback Bowl, but he at least displayed some capability to change a game, and Vandeberg's fumbled return against Nebraska shows that even a (seemingly) low-risk, low-reward option comes with some risk. One must wonder if Tevaun Smith can field a punt.
The short of it is: Marshall Koehn is a good kicker. Iowa covered kickoffs as well as anybody in the country, and hey, the Hawks even blocked a couple kicks. But Iowa punted and returned punts way too poorly (worst in the conference) for a team that needs all the field position help it can get in lieu of gaining chunks of yardage on offense or playing top-level shutdown defense.