IOWA CITY — Coaches like to emphasize that blocks and tackles on the punt team are just as important as those plays on offense or defense.
Some tout special teams as one-third of the game. While the percentages are debatable, special teams often provide the difference between winning and losing. Special teams directly impacted Iowa in the Hawkeyes' first two losses last year.
At Arizona, Iowa gave up a blocked punt inside its 10-yard line that led to the Wildcats' first touchdown. Early in the second quarter, after Iowa trimmed its deficit to 14-7, Arizona returned a kickoff 100 yards. After Iowa knotted the game at 27-27, a missed extra point kept the Hawkeyes from taking a lead. Each of those plays shifted momentum toward Arizona in a 34-27 Iowa loss.
"Obviously we had the one critical breakdown against Arizona. Not to throw anybody under the bus — I’m not going to do that — I didn’t do a good enough job coaching it," Iowa special teams/running backs coach Lester Erb said of the blocked punt. "That’s the way I look at it. We had experienced guys out there at that time, it just comes to down to … for the most part we protected him pretty well the rest of the year. You get a punt blocked and there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to lose the game."
Perhaps more glaring was what happened on Oct. 23 against archrival Wisconsin. A missed blocking assignment led to a blocked extra point after Iowa's first touchdown. A bad snap and a botched hold on a 30-yard field goal attempt let another first-half scoring opportunity fade. Then, perhaps the signature breakdown of the season, Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman burst through a canyon-esque opening through Iowa's punt unit for 17 yards on fourth-and-6 from the Badgers' 26. That led to Wisconsin's winning touchdown and a 31-30 win.
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz considered using a "punt-safe" alignment in that situation, but instead chose regular punt return.
"Had we gone punt safe it would not have been an issue," Ferentz said afterward. "Put it down: we blew that one, that's my job."
Iowa chose to use punt safe the rest of the season. Twice the Hawkeyes (the first was against Eastern Illinois in the opener) were burned on fake punts. Ferentz vowed not to let it happen again, and Erb put it in place.
"The way teams were playing us, putting those four d-linemen in there really helped with our return and it helped take away some of the fake punts that we had see earlier in the year," Erb said. "Yeah, that was by design.
"It’s a new year, and we’ll make sure we’re putting the right guys on the field."
Many of the breakdowns last year were caused by injuries to key performers and other players elevated to starting roles. Iowa hopes to avoid those mistakes on return units this year. Iowa likely will mix and match veterans with true freshmen on its special teams units."A lot goes into it," Erb said. " I would envision and I would hope that some of those guys take that step so we could use them."