By Tyler Devine
IOWA CITY, Iowa - The Iowa football team's 45-16 victory over Illinois on Saturday was two homecomings in one.
Besides the traditional homecoming festivites associated with the game, junior safety Brandon Snyder made his first appearance/start since suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament during spring practice in April. His improbable return capped a remarkable five-and-a-half-month recovery from an injury that often takes twice that long to heal.
Snyder started at free safety alongside strong safety Miles Taylor, who would later be replaced by sophomore Amani Hooker.
“It was just really cool to be out there today,” Snyder said. “The first time I was out there I had goosebumps again. Seeing Kinnick full, there’s nothing better than that. It’s just something that - you can’t buy that.
“I was just trying to take in the moment and take in the stands. Just how cool it is to be back in Kinnick Stadium and be healthy. It’s something that you miss, it’s something that I take for granted but I appreciate it a lot more through this and I’m thankful for that for sure.”
Snyder’s return was highlighted by an 89-yard interception return for a touchdown that came with 6 minutes, 40 seconds left in the third quarter. His pick-six gave Iowa its first double-digit lead in the game at 24-13.
The interception was the fourth of Snyder’s career and tied Shaun Prater for the sixth-longest interception return in school history. He also recorded three tackles and two pass breakups.
“Five and a half months is a long time to think about football and I’ve taken huge steps in the mental side of it because you use your other senses when you can’t do stuff physically,” Snyder said. “So you’re just watching practice, mental reps.
“The pick six was a play that they’ve run for the last year and a half over and over again. I didn’t really do my job but I kind of knew the play. It’s something you see so many times in your head and the night before you’re going through it. The throw was a little bit behind him but I was in the right spot at the right time.”
Recovering from an injury is not only physically taxing, but can also take a toll on a player mentally.
The 6-foot-1, 214-pound Snyder used the extra time he had to mentally prepare to play in order to break the monotony of his rehabilitation.
“The hardest part is just how mundane it is,” Snyder said. “Day after day you just have to stay on it and I think that’s the hardest thing. It’s a process, it’s just five months, six months of the same stuff day after day and you just have to stay with it mentally. It’s not really the physical part, it’s the mental.
“Your teammates are out there practicing and being part of the team and you kind of fall out of that so you try to stay in it as much as you can, but it’s hard to. So just the mental side of staying in it and trusting the people around you that they’re going to get you there.”
Junior defensive end Parker Hesse has had a first-hand look at Snyder’s extraordinary recovery.
Hesse lives with Snyder and was in awe like so many others were with how quickly Snyder responded to such a devastating injury.
“Obviously, having that injury is something that’s been tough,” Hesse said. “Living with him in our house we’ve been through thick and thin with him and trying to encourage him. Seeing the way he’s battled back to be back out here this early and then being able to contribute the way he did today is amazing and I’m really proud of him.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz admires Snyder’s mental fortitude and found it fitting that Snyder would make such a big play in his first action in nearly six months.
“Needless to say, he really rehabbed hard to push the needle a little bit that way, and then beyond that, I think the mental work that he was doing when he was out,” Ferentz said. “A player that has experience and a player who's been through some ups and downs like he was a year ago has a real opportunity to take that time when he can't practice and improve, and I think that's certainly what Brandon has been doing.
“So I can't say enough about the work that he's done when he's been away from the field and not able to be out there in the huddle. For him to get a pick-six today and give us a spark like he did, that's just really poetic justice, if you will.”
For senior running back Akrum Wadley, Snyder’s attitude and work ethic personify what it means to be an Iowa football player.
“I love Brandon,” Wadley said. “He represents what we stand for as a program. He does everything right. I was listening to him when he was talking about the Swarm and every game he wasn’t in uniform I could see it in his eyes how bad he wanted it, how bad he wanted to go out there.
“For him to stay true to his game and just keep going - he had a great game. We’re all proud of him.”
Wirfs' time: By starting against Illinois on Saturday, Tristan Wirfs went where very few Iowa offensive lineman have gone before him.
The true freshman from Mount Vernon made his first career start for the Hawkeyes, replacing injured senior Boone Myers at right tackle.
Wirfs is believed to the first true freshman to start at tackle for Iowa under Kirk Ferentz and the first true freshman to start on the offensive line since James Daniels started two games in 2015.
Bryan Bulaga started six games at guard as a true freshman in 2007, while Mike Jones also started at guard as a true freshman in 2003.
Wirfs presence at right tackle allowed for senior Sean Welsh to switch back to guard where he seems more comfortable.
“If he can play well out there, that's good for us, obviously, and then the other thing, it allows Sean to get back to where he's a little bit more comfortable,” Ferentz said. “We're kind of just fudging things a little bit with Sean out there. We're taking a guy who's a really good football player and maybe minimizing some of his effectiveness.
“We just felt like coming out of last weekend this was the best thing for us. It gives us the best chance, and fortunately, those guys practiced well together this week.”
The 6-foot-5, 315-pound Wirfs helped pave the way for 191 rushing yards on 38 attempts. He made some mistakes, but for the most part, Ferentz seemed pleased with his young right tackle, who was slowed by an injury during preseason camp.
“He actually got beat on that last touchdown that we threw, late enough where we got the ball out. There was one play in the first half where the guy came up underneath on him. But outside of that, nothing that was glaringly -- we'll have plenty of coach off tomorrow. But again, that's another good story there. And he was doing a nice job in camp, and then had an injury that really set him back because he doesn't have that knowledge base.”
Wirfs and Welsh were joined in the starting lineup on Saturday by Daniels at center, junior Keegan Render at guard and redshirt freshman Alaric Jackson at right tackle.
Jackson has started all six games at left tackle this season.
Injury report: Senior defensive tackle Nathan Bazata did not play in the second half due to an undisclosed injury.
Sophomore Garret Jansen replaced Bazata for much of the second half at defensive tackle.
“He wasn't going to come back today, but I have no reason to think that he won't be -- if we were playing next week, as far as I know he'd be ready to go,” Ferentz said of Bazata, who made his 30th start as a Hawkeye on Saturday. “But this week off will help him a little bit, get him and the older guys, try to get them healed up a little bit.”
Fresh faces: Freshman punter Ryan Gersonde made his Iowa debut on Saturday, replacing sophomore Colten Rastetter.
Gersonde punted three times for 37.7 average, with a long of 43 yards. The Wisconsin native is the 10th true freshman to play this season. The others are safety Noah Clayberg, receiver Max Cooper, defensive end A.J. Epenesa, defensive back Matt Hankins, running back Ivory Kelly-Martin, receiver Brandon Smith, receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, safety Geno Stone and Wirfs.
First timers: Junior backup quarterback Tyler Wiegers completed the first touchdown pass in his career on Saturday. It came on a 3-yard pass to Ivory Kelly-Martin with 3:36 left to play.
It was also Kelly-Martin’s first career touchdown reception.
Iowa starting quarterback Nate Stanley was happy to see his teammate and friend achieve a milestone. Stanley and Wiegers competed for the starting job throughout spring practice and for msot of preseason practice.
“It was exciting,” Stanley said. “He’s helped me throughout the whole year. We’re great friends, and for him to throw a touchdown pass was pretty special.”
Geno Stone recorded his first career interception in the fourth quarter. However, he fumbled during the return, which resulted in the first career fumble recovery for Jansen.
Young gun: Sophomore running back Toren Young made his first career start on Saturday.
The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Young rushed for 32 yards on eight carries, lifting his season total to 110 yards on 27 carries.
Bowl reps watching: Representatives from the Pinstripe Bowl were in attendance at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday.
The Pinstripe Bowl is played on Dec. 27 at Yankee Stadium in New York City and features teams from the Big Ten and Atlantic Coast conferences.
Rare onside: Iowa recovered an onside kick in the first quarter against Illinois.
Iowa kicked from near midfield due to an Illinois penalty and true freshman cornerback Matt Hankins recovered the kick at the Illinois 37.
“Those are recommendations from the staff, and boy, I'm all for them,” Ferentz said. “But I feel even better when we do them well in practice. Miguel was kicking that onside kick. He really did a nice job all week. It's a little easier for me to give it the okay when you see it a couple times during the week. That gives you confidence.”
Two firsts for Hooker: Amani Hooker had his first career interception on Saturday.
The Minneapolis native also recorded his first career rush on a fake punt just before halftime. Hooker gained 18 yards on the return and helped to set up Akrum Wadley's 2-yard touchdown reception that gave Iowa a 17-13 halftime lead.
“The fake punt is something that is in our playbook, but we thought it was just maybe there, and in that situation right there, we just felt like we needed a little juice, something maybe to get us going, and the guys did a great job with the execution,” Ferentz said.
Quick slants: Stanley was intercepted on his 15th pass attempt, breaking a streak of 147 attempts without an interception…Wadley rushed 23 times for 115 yards, his 12th career 100-yard rushing game. He passed Shonn Greene for 10th on Iowa’s all-time rushing list…Senior receiver Matt VandeBerg had two receptions for 48 yards and a touchdown. He has at least one reception in 25 consecutive games played. He has 121 career receptions, good for 11th on Iowa’s all-time list…Junior receiver Nick Easley tied his career-high with seven receptions. He has led Iowa in receiving four times this season…Freshman tight end T.J. Hockenson caught two passes for 41 yards. He has 10 receptions this season, nine resulting in a first down and one resulting in a touchdown…Iowa has won 12 of the last 15 meetings against Illinois, including nine of the last 10 and four in a row.