By Richard Podhajsky
IOWA CITY, Iowa - The Iowa football team has seen its fair share of players decommit shortly before signing day. However, that door works both ways, and with Ihmir Smith-Marsette, the Hawkeyes are glad it does.
Smith-Marsette had been committed to both Rutgers and Minnesota before switching to Iowa just prior to signing day in 2017. On Saturday, the speedster from New Jesey showed the Scarlet Knights what they’re missing, catching four passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns in No. 20 Iowa’s 30-0 win over Rutgers at Kinnick Stadium.
Smith-Marsette scored Iowa's first touchdown on a 58-yard pass from quarterback Nate Stanley less than three minutes into the game.
"(Offensive coordinator) Brian (Ferentz) called it and he wanted me in there (on the first touchdown),” Smith-Marsette said. “I got a little motion to see what the DB was going to do. He was off outside, I gave him a little move to the outside, came back in, (quarterback) Nate (Stanley) delivered a great ball and all I had to do was finish it. So it was a great start to a good game.”
Smith-Marsette is from Newark, N.J., less than 30 miles from the Rutgers campus. This was the junior’s first chance to play against his home-state school, and he made the most of it.
“It felt real good,” Smith-Marsette said of playing against Rutgers. “I just wanted to go out there and do what I could do. You know, show my skills and just be able to put the team up. And that’s something that I did and we just started moving forward.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz says Smith-Marsette has benefited from the maturity gained from playing the last few years.
“Last year, as a kick returner, he did a great job and he’ll continue to do that, but he’s just grown as a player,” Ferentz said. “Both he and Brandon (Smith) were really young players, even last year. In a perfect world you could have redshirted them but that wasn’t the way it was.
“So, they did well last year but they’re clearly different guys right now, more confident, more decisive in everything they’re doing. Ihmir’s put weight on and really since we’ve come out of spring ball he’s been everything you hope. He’s done a really good job, been focused and works really hard.”
And, according to his teammates, Smith-Marsette helped bail out his team on at least one of the catches.
“He made a great catch on the second touchdown he had,” Stanley said. “I threw the ball a little bit behind him and he did a great job making that catch. And then, finishing that first post ball off (for the first touchdown).”
Saturday marked the first time Smith-Marsette has had at least 100 yards receiving, also tying career highs in catches and touchdowns.
Early Conference Opener: The Sept. 7 Big Ten opener marks the earliest Iowa has ever played a conference game. And the players say while it was out of place, it could be beneficial with in-state rival and 25th-ranked Iowa State waiting next week in Ames.
“For me, just being here the past three years playing a MAC school, the kids are a little bit smaller than playing a Big 10 team,” junior defensive back Geno Stone said. “And now going against a Big 12 team, you already have that higher-level classification and stuff. So going into these games, it’s really going to help a lot knowing what types of team we’re going to play.”
Ferentz wasn’t as sold on the difference playing a conference game this early will make.
“Not necessarily,” Ferentz said. “(Honorary captain) Tom Hayes said this yesterday - first games are always the hardest games and I tend to agree because there’s so much unknown out there. To me, week two is kind of the same way no matter who you’re playing because at least you get to see their players once on film but you don’t really know on total what you’re going to get out there.”
This also marked Rutgers first ever trip to Iowa City and only the second meeting between the two programs. Iowa won the previous meeting 14-7 in 2016 in New Jersey.
A marked man: Junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa had Iowa's only sack on Saturday, and it resulted in a loss of nine yards. He also led the Hawkeyes with four quarterback hurries.
This comes a week after Epenesa was held without a sack in Iowa's 38-14 victory over Miami of Ohio in the season opener at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa also had just one sack in that game.
"I knew that was going to happen and people are going to want and try and stop me because of what I was able to do last year," said Epenesa, who led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks last season. "So I kind of have a target on my head, some teams think so."
Epenesa was asked after Saturday's game if he is frustrated from having to face so many double teams.
"Frustrated, not really," he said. "I'm just kind of looking for ways to beat that because you see players double-teamed all the time and still have success. So there's ways to beat it and that's what I'm working on."
(Lack of) Attendance Report: The early Big Ten start and unfamiliar foe did not help to entice fans, with official attendance reported at 61,808. That’s the smallest crowd for a Big Ten home opener of the Kirk Ferentz era - roughly 2,000 less than the previous low in 2000 - and the lowest number for a conference home opener since 1982, when only 59,750 were in attendance to see Iowa beat Northwestern 45-7.
Injury Report: Junior offensive lineman Cole Banwart missed his second straight game with a leg injury; sophomore defensive back Kaevon Merriweather also sat out Saturday's gamne with a sprained foot that he suffered in practice on Friday.
Junior strong safety Geno Stone left Saturday’s game with an unspecified injury. However, Stone told reporters after the game that he was fine.
"I wouldn't be here if I wasn't," Stone said.
Junior left tackle Alaric Jackson missed Saturday's game because of a right knee sprain that he suffered in the first quarter of last Saturday's 38-14 victory over Miami of Ohio in the season opener.
Sophomore defensive backs Riley Moss and Julius Brents also missed the Rutgers game because of injuries.
O-Line Shuffle: With two starters on the shelf, the Hawkeye offensive line again used several combinations, with nine different linemen seeing action. Of the starters, only center Tyler Linderbaum played the whole game at his starting position.
Linderbaum is a redshirt freshman from Solon who made just his second career start on Saturday.
Just for Kicks: Iowa’s kicking game got a little more of a workout this week, seemingly passing the test. Senior punter Michael Sleep-Dalton only punted once for 31 yards in week one. But he had more opportunities and better results on Saturday, punting six times for a 48.3 yard average.
“It was good to finally get into a bit of a rhythm and get out there and move out the nerves,” Sleep-Dalton said. “Only got one kick last week but, you know, the boys all did well. It started with the snap and then the protection and then hitting a good ball and then the coverage. You know, I was happy with it.”
It’s fair to say his head coach was happy with it, as well.
“We’d love to have that (level of production every week), we can’t count on it,” Ferentz said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been involved in a game where two punters punted as well as both of them did. They were the players of the game on both sides, really.
“But Michael made it really better for us today. Obviously, he changed field position and helped us out, we were in some tough positions. So, if we can have him continue to perform like that that’ll be a real asset to our team.”
Meanwhile, placekicker Keith Duncan is now 4-4 on field goals on the season, connecting on all three attempts on Saturday, including a career-long 46-yarder in the second quarter to put Iowa up 17-0. He also hit from 43 and 19 yards.
Slow Starters: The Iowa offense scored only seven first-quarter points, following up a three point first quarter effort against Miami (OH). Still, it’s an improvement over the first two games of 2018, when the Hawkeyes scored zero first quarter points in the first two games. They ended last season with 64 first quarter points in 13 games, an average of a little less than five points per game.
Moving On Up: Senior quarterback Nate Stanley continues his climb up the Iowa record charts, throwing three more touchdown passes to give 58 for his career. That moves him past Ricky Stanzi into third on Iowa’s all-time list, three behind Drew Tate for second and 16 behind Chuck Long’s school record of 74.
“I actually didn’t know that,” Stanley said of where he stands in the record books. “It’s awesome to be in that position but I think it comes back to the offensive line. They gave me plenty of time today.”
His 236 passing yards also moved up to seventh in school history in that category, climbing above James Vandenberg. Stanley has thrown for 5,839 yards; Long also holds that record, throwing for 10,461 career yards.
He’s a natural, ain’t you, Tyrone: Redshirt freshman Tyrone Tracy scored his first career touchdown on Saturday on just his third career reception. Tracy would end the game with three catches for 42 yards. He also carried the ball once on a reverse, picking up seven yards. The Indiana native was named that state’s Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior and saw action in four games last year, making one catch for 22 yards and one rush for -1 yard.
“He’s going out and we work all the time,” Smith-Marsette said of the young receiver. “We come to practice really focused and make sure we communicate with each other. Tyrone’s taking out that step of just coming off (the field) and letting us know what he’s seeing and how he thinks we should run certain things, too. So everybody has like a say-so on what’s going on out there. So Tyrone is just being Tyrone and he’s - I feel as though he’s making big plays and pushing the room forward, too.”
Youth Movement: Multiple true freshmen saw action on Saturday. Running back Tyler Goodson, a Suwanee, Ga.-native, played in his second game, carrying the ball 10 times for 53 yards with a long of 19. Receiver Desmond Hutson out of Rayton, Mo., and tight end Sam LaPorta, of Highland, Ill., also played in their second games, while offensive lineman Justin Britt, of Indianapolis, Ind., saw his first action of the season.
You Shall Not Pass: The Iowa defense on Saturday held Rutgers to only 41 yards passing. That’s the second fewest allowed under Ferentz. The only total lower was when the Hawkeyes played Georgia Tech in the 2010 Orange Bowl, when the Yellow Jackets managed only 12 yards through the air.