IOWA CITY — Tevaun Smith knew he wasn’t out of bounds on that really cool one-handed catch he made. That was unquestionably in bounds and a 6-yard touchdown and No. 4 on ESPN SportsCenter’s plays of the day.
Smith, a junior wide receiver for the Hawkeyes, didn’t think he was out of bounds on the crazy reverse play that started left and then kind of zigged and zagged to the middle of the field and eventually up the right sideline. There, Smith got nudged toward the sideline and did a high step-kick thingie that looked to keep him in play.
Alas, it didn’t. Smith gained 35 yards. Northern Iowa was hit with one of its 16 penalties. And, finally, Smith finished the drive with his celebrated one-hander.
“I didn’t think I was out of bounds,” said Smith, who finished with three catches for 17 yards and, with that one rush, led Iowa in rushing. “I still don’t think I was out of bounds.”
This season was set up for the Iowa wide receivers corps to take a step forward. Iowa signed five receivers in the 2013 class. Three redshirts, including Derrick Willies, came on line. Smith was clearly on the uptick at the end of ‘13. Senior Kevonte Martin-Manley has been a steady contributor from day 1.
A lot of that showed up in the Hawkeyes’ 31-23 victory over Northern Iowa on Saturday.
The SportsCenter top 10 was a nice little bonus for the group to enjoy.
“That’s big,” said Martin-Manley, who caught eight passes for 62 yards (his most receptions in a game since nine in last year’s opener). “We always have fun with that. We always congratulate each other. When guys make big plays like that, we get genuinely excited.”
Iowa has messed around with the reverse for several years. It’s been the twist that everyone kind of knows is coming. What made it work Saturday was Smith. You might consider it an “old dog” play — and who knows if offensive coordinator Greg Davis will break it out again — but Smith put “new trick” to it.
“Coach K [wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy] said in practice, ‘You really want to run that play, don’t you?’” Smith said. “Oh yeah, I do. That definitely gave me the confidence.”
On the one-hander, Smith said Iowa wide receivers aren’t taught that technique. UNI cornerback Makinton Dorleant pinned his left arm and Smith improvised.
“We usually catch with two hands all of the time,” Smith said. “The ball was on the money, outside where only I could get it.”
Martin-Manley’s contributions were felt on third down. After UNI took a 10-7 lead in the first half, quarterback Jake Rudock hit Martin-Manley for a 12-yard gain on a third-and-9. The drive ended in a Mark Weisman 1-yard TD run. In the fourth, Martin-Manley had a 16-yard catch that converted a third-and-7. The drive ended in Damond Powell’s 12-yard TD off a screen.
“Third down, we call it ‘money down,’” Martin-Manley said. “Those are big plays, that’s why we call it that. It’s important to convert those, like on that last drive. Third down is always big, it moves the chains and helps you score.”
OK, where was the deep ball? Northern Iowa played a lot of three-deep zone. The Panthers decided they weren’t going to get beat deep. When speed guys Powell and Derrick Willies were on the field, UNI dropped into three-deep. UNI cheated toward the line of scrimmage more in the second half and that allowed more long pass attempts.
“It was what they started doing,” said Rudock, who had career highs in completions (31) and with 250 yards was just 6 yards off that career high (256 vs. Northern Illinois last year). “We were able to go a little more downfield. They like to play three deep, play a little deeper and make it a little tougher to get big chunks. We took what they gave us and then they had to start coming for the run and it opened up a little deeper.”
That’s when Willies made his play. It was one play, but it was a 46-yard reception in which he showed a lot of athleticism, stretching to secure the catch before stumbling at UNI’s 8. The play set up Powell’s TD and allowed Iowa to escape.
“I knew once the safety hung down and once I looked back, the ball should be in the air,” Willies said. “It was, and after that it was just making the catch.”
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