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Matchup to Watch: Thomas Pannunzio vs. Tory Taylor

Will special teams continue to be a huge advantage for the Hawkeyes?

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NCAA Football: Colorado State at Fresno State Kiel Maddox-USA TODAY Sports

Week 1: Ty Fryfogle vs. Iowa’s corners
Week 2: Charlie Kolar/Chase Allen vs. Iowa’s linebackers
Week 3: Kent State’s corners vs. Iowa’s wide receivers

It was the wideouts’ most voluminous day of 2021, as they combined for 11 receptions and 111 yards. Four receivers caught balls, as Iowa made a concerted effort to get Tyrone Tracy et al the ball with space to make plays. Spencer Petras once again stayed out of the interception column against the Golden Flash secondary who remain at the top of the list in interceptions/game despite the goose egg.

Through three games, special teams play has been a huge advantage for the #5 Iowa Hawkeyes (3-0). Caleb Shudak remains an ace in the kicking game with 16 touchbacks on 17 kicks, plus 4-of-5 on field goals. Charlie Jones is an elite returner, with 11.6 yards/punt return and 25.2 on kickoffs. He’s affecting opposing punts yardage with regularity, as opponents have begun angling kicks away from him. And Tory Taylor has improved upon his 2020 of 44.1 yards/punt to a mindboggling 49.7.

The group has been so good, it warranted a midweek profile of LeVar Woods by The Athletic’s Scott Dochterman.

Yet the advantage looks to be as close to an even matchup as the Hawkeyes have faced so far this season. Though Caden Camper is 6/9 on the season, he’s coming off a tidy 5/5 game against Toledo. Ryan Stonehouse is a three-time Mountain West first team punter with 4 seasons over 45 yards/punt. And Thomas Pannunzio made his presence felt against Toledo with a punt return touchdown, the Rams’ only TD on the day.

Pannunzio was a weapon in the kickoff return game during Colorado State’s pandemic-shortened season, tallying at least one 30-yard return in each of their 4 games. He also added two punt returns for 16-per. The former walk-on returned to the punt return duties after the Rams’ first two options became unavailable - one by injury and one after a couple errors - and made the most of his opportunity with the above touchdown.

So there is the possibility Pannunzio is not back to field Tory Taylor punts, rendering this admittedly niche matchup moot. However, it doesn’t take away from the importance on the Iowa punting game, as Taylor has yielded just 5 returns for 18 yards amongst his 19 punts this season.

Further, the emphasis Steve Addazio places on special teams does mirror Kirk Ferentz’s in the sense that the offense is more focused on ball control & time of possession than yardage-for-yardage’s sake. The similar philosophies will make the abilities to max out the margins all that more important and if Colorado State can play the Hawks to a draw in that area, it’ll make Saturday’s game a little more interesting than expected.

Thomas Pannunzio impacted his lone game as Colorado State’s punt returner to the tune of their only touchdown against Toledo. He’s demonstrated ability there, and elsewhere, to flip the field through the return game. Tory Taylor is part of a special teams unit which is among the best in college football and likely the best Colorado State has faced under Addazio.

Yet Pannunzio’s ability highlights Iowa’s need to be clean in the punting game, especially a limit on outkicking the coverage. If he’s able to score in areas where Iowa’s been successful at limiting opponent opportunities, it becomes found money for the Rams.

And the last think Iowa needs as they look to close out the non-conference slate strong.