Ask an Iowa fan and they’ll tell you that special teams have been anything but special over the past few seasons. Between trying to find a reliable field goal kicker, recognizing and defending an onside kick, actually "tackling the guy who has the ball" on kickoffs and finding a punt returner who won’t call for a fair catch despite having 10 yards of running room, it’s been a tough stretch for the Hawkeyes. But there have been glimmers of hope this season.
Central Michigan (vomit) aside, the Iowa special teams have been surprisingly competent and appear to be improving as the season moves forward. The unanimous special teams MVP is Mike Meyer, who is 14 of 15 on FG attempts with his only miss being a 40 yarder in week one against NIU. Since that time he’s converted three 40+ yard attempts, including a 42 yarder against Michigan State in the second overtime which ended up being the game winning points. Meyer has also kicked a school record 68 PATs in a row. A few more stats:
- Meyer’s 14 field goals tie him for third in the nation.
- Meyer’s 54 points leads the Hawkeyes and makes him the 18th highest scoring player in the nation.
- Meyer’s 2.33 field goals made per game put him at fifth in the nation.
Summation: Meyer has been excellent and is arguably the best kicker in the nation.
The punting unit has been less than spectacular. Between using a true freshman to play boom ball and an ex-quarterback to coffin corner, Iowa is one of the worst teams in the conference in punting yards and worst teams in the nation when it comes to net punting. Same goes for punt returns, as Micah Hyde has a nasty habit of fair catching when he should be running and running (or attempting to run) when he should be fair catching. Despite the lack of success, he maintains starting status as punt returner.
If the Iowa offense is to continue treating the end zone like it’s littered with the bubonic plague, the kicking game has to maintain its high level of success. Despite their trouble scoring touchdowns, the Hawkeyes are scoring almost 93% of the time they get into the red zone thanks to Meyer’s excellent play. Naturally, they’re taking on a team that is the 14th best in the nation when it comes to opponent red zone scoring percentage (69%). Thus, it goes without saying: special teams are important against Penn State.
Speaking of Penn State special teams. Wow. If Iowa is bad in some special teams categories, Penn State is worse. To illustrate:
Let’s start with "kicker." Following the departure of starter Anthony Fera, the Nittany Lions turned to sophomore Sam Ficken, who is currently 3 of 9 on the year and has only made 19 of 21 PATs. It’s arguable that he’ll forever be remembered for the disastrous Virginia game, where he went 1 for 5, had a PAT blocked and missed the game winning field goal. Since that time Penn State has attempted 4 field goals in 4 games. And it’s not that their offense doesn’t need to kick field goals. It’s that Bill O’Brien has his team going for it on 4th down 2.2 times a game. Only three teams (ULM, Navy and Army) are going for it more.
Ficken’s struggles explain why Penn State has one of the worst red zone scoring offenses in the nation. The Nittany Lions are only scoring 70% of the time they get inside the opponent 20, which ranks 102nd out of 124 FBS teams (Team Rankings counts the transitional FBS teams). Finally, punting isn’t much better. The Nittany Lions rank dead last in net punting and are only averaging 36.5 yards per punt. It could be better.
That’s why special teams will decide this game. Iowa is one of the worst touchdown scoring offenses in the nation. Penn State’s defense will look to hurry Vandenberg, bottle up whoever is running the ball and keep the Hawkeyes out of the end zone. Thus, the Hawkeyes will be forced to rely on the special teams in the clutch. The positive is that their special teams are clutch. Penn State certainly doesn’t have that luxury. Both Iowa and Penn State are holding teams to 1.8 offensive touchdowns per game. Bend, but don’t break. Thus, when it comes down to crunch time and a big kick is needed to seal the victory, the team with the better kicker will walk away the victor. And I think we know who that team is...