IOWA CITY -- The Hawkeyes celebrated a tackle after a kick return late in the Pittsburgh game.
A triumphant return to the sideline. Many, many high fives. And a lot of smiles.
Three factors were at play here: 1) Iowa's kick coverage has been spotty to atrocious the last two seasons and any kick covered is a cause for high fives and a deep breath. 2) Joe Audlehelm made the tackle, the massive grin he wore to the sidelines spoke to the two-plus seasons of practice grind that went into that one play. 3) The Hawkeyes started to fill with energy after trailing Pitt, 24-3, late in the third quarter.
It's hard to tell which factor ignited the Hawkeyes more, but maybe the greatest comeback in school history -- an eventual 31-27 victory over Pitt -- needed all three.
Iowa needs better special teams and therefore it needs more Joe Audlehelm, who seemed completely at ease during what surely were his first interviews since his days as a wide receiver/defensive back at Central Decatur High School in Van Wert.
"It was just coach putting me in there and me doing my best to make a play for the team," said Audlehelm, a 5-foot-8, 182-pound walk-on.
When running down the field, Audlehelm, all 180 pounds of him, thinks: "I'm going to do my best to help the team out and do whatever I can to make a play."
If the Hawkeyes (2-1) could inscribe anything on their wristbands, team-wide, it might just be that. Players come in all shapes and sizes and with all sorts of motivations. For a team that has been as uneven as the Hawkeyes the first three weeks, that simple, no-ego thought might unlock them.
"He was on the bus at Iowa State," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. Audlehelm wasn't going to play wide receiver in Ames. He probably wasn't going to play special teams, either. He was No. 2 kick coverage, Ferentz thinks.
"He had been hustling in practice," Ferentz said. "It was kind of a reward for the way he works. He got his chance. A lot of times what guys do in practice shows up in games."
Iowa's special teams aren't out of the woods. Sophomore kicker Mike Meyer opened the season 7-for-7 but missed a pair of field goals against Pitt. The kick coverage is still 96th -- up from 103 the previous week -- in the nation allowing 24.53 yards a kick. Coincidentally, that's one spot ahead of this week's opponent, Louisiana Monroe (1-2).
Iowa's special teams took a hit Monday when the school announced linebacker Bruce Davis left the team. The fifth-year senior has been a special teams fixture since 2009, when he recovered a surprise onsides kick at Iowa State. Davis was a scholarship athlete from Cleveland who was on the outside looking in at linebacker.
The commodity that Joe Audlehelm represents -- the workaholic plugger who covers kicks and punts and lives in general football anonymity -- became that much more valuable with Davis' departure.
Senior safety/linebacker Tom Donatell knows that part. He's been a special teamer for the better part of the last two seasons. It might not be the sexy football life he envisioned after walking on in 2007. Donatell's dad, Ed, has been a defensive coach in the NFL for 20 years. So, you know Tom Donatell has seen the football high life.
Yet, when Donatell tackled Pitt's Corey Davis at the Panthers' 9 after the Hawkeyes had taken their 31-27 Saturday, Ed Donatell was pummeled with text messages from all over football. Not to mention, Donatell's tackle forced Pitt to start its last-gasp from its 9.
Every contribution mattered in Saturday's comeback. Every contribution will matter for Iowa in a year where the margin for error might be smaller than ever.
"It was enough," Donatell said of special teams. "We had been letting down our team so much in the last couple weeks, we thought we needed to make a play as a special teams unit. Those last two kickoffs showed it."
There are starters all over Iowa's special teams. Senior safety Jordan Bernstine is becoming a more and more essential piece to Iowa '11 every kick off, cover or return (and every tackle from strong safety, for that matter). Sophomore linebacker James Morris is the personal protector on punts. Sophomore linebacker Christian Kirksey is on punt, punt return and kick return.
Still, when an Audlehelm or a Donatell makes a play, especially on what has been arguably Iowa's sorest spot for the last two seasons, it lifts spirits, which probably didn't hurt, either, during the greatest comeback in school history.
"We always like to see a guy make a play and especially a guy like Joe," Kirksey said. "He has a motor that just keeps running. He loves the game, he loves making plays. When he did it Saturday, it brought joy to the whole team."
Every little bit helped Saturday. Every little bit will help for the next 10 weeks. It's all Audlehelms on deck.
BTW -- In the above picture of Joe Audlehelm, he wore Nile Kinnick's 24 because he was on scout team and Georgia Tech had a No. 24. Iowa coaches didn't want to invite any confusion, so he wore the 24. Just in practice and only because of the Tech player. I figure you know no one Iowa will ever wear Nile Kinnick's retired 24, I just wanted to explain the above photo.What conference is Missouri in now?