Greg Hansen: Special-teamer's play set tone

Punt block put Iowa on its heels, UA on way to win
2010-09-20T00:00:00Z 2014-10-29T08:56:20Z Greg Hansen: Special-teamer's play set toneGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
September 20, 2010 12:00 am  • 

At 12:30 Sunday morning, a black 18-wheeler backed over a curb and moved away from Arizona Stadium. By then, Sixth Street was deserted. More than three hours of bedlam had given way to the still of the night.

The large gold lettering on the side of Iowa's football equipment trailer read: "It's Great to Be a Hawkeye."

Well, sometimes it's better than others.

As the rig began its long journey to Iowa City, Arizona special teams coordinator and defensive ends coach Jeff Hammerschmidt was on his way home to be with his wife and young daughter.

A special teams coach doesn't sleep much on a night when his team blocks a punt, fumbles a punt, returns a kickoff for a touchdown and, ultimately, blocks an extra-point attempt to accentuate his team's pulsating 34-27 victory.

"Sleep?" he said when he returned to his office Sunday morning. "What's that?"

Hammerschmidt is the only member of the UA coaching staff who had known what it was to stun a Top 10 nonconference team at Arizona Stadium. In the process of becoming the Pac-10's all-conference strong safety, Hammerschmidt made 11 tackles on Sept. 16, 1989, as the Wildcats upset No. 6 Oklahoma 6-3.

But don't even think of asking him which game felt better, the one as a player or the one as a coach. How do you separate euphoria from exhilaration?

There were more than 130 plays in Saturday's game and in the ebb and flow of a sometimes erratic, sometimes nutty night, it took about 129 to identify the winner. It's likely that the Wildcats would never have gotten to Nick Foles' game-winning touchdown pass to Bug Wright had not the fourth play in a 3 1/2-hour game established Arizona's presence and intensified its belief.

One play changed everything. It wasn't an accident.

Junior receiver David Roberts broke through Iowa's punt-protection unit to block Ryan Donahue's kick. Arizona recovered at the Hawkeye 8 and scored in four plays. The Wildcats would never trail the nation's ninth-ranked team.

Play of the game? Why not?

"We haven't had punt-protection issues since Pitt in 2008," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. Incredibly, Arizona had blocked just one punt since early 2006, one punt in 51 games. Guess who blocked that one? David Roberts in a rousing, 42-27 victory over No. 25 Cal two years ago.

On Saturday morning, Hammerschmidt and his punt-coverage unit had a walk-through at the stadium. In it, the coach told Roberts and freshman safety Marquis Flowers that he was confident they could get to Donahue the first time Iowa punted.

"David has a knack for getting to the ball, for getting close," Hammerschmidt said. "I felt David and Marquis could get through, using a twist, with David looping behind Marquis, and he did."

On the snap, Flowers executed his assignment perfectly. He took on the punter's lone protector. "Got in his face and applied a lot of pressure," said Hammerschmidt.

Looping behind Flowers, Roberts smothered the kick.

"They found the crease," Hammerschmidt said. "David got it clean. Both guys did exactly what we hoped they would do. It's so hard to block a punt, against anybody and especially against a team like Iowa. It's usually a big momentum thing."

Arizona beat Iowa for a lot more reasons than blocking a punt. Most of them were smaller things that didn't show up in the box score.

Among them, the Wildcats won because offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh used the week of preparation to successfully challenge his team to overcome what some insist is the best defensive line in college football.

"The great thing about football," Bedenbaugh said after Tuesday's practice, "is that you've got to be motivated. You've got to enjoy the challenge and I think this group is looking forward to it. You shouldn't be playing football if you don't enjoy playing against Iowa."

Behind that motivated line, Arizona gained 366 yards. The Hawkeyes had not given up that many yards in their last 19 games, dating to a 2008 victory over Wisconsin.

Funny, but the Arizona-Iowa game was widely viewed as the most glamorous matchup of the weekend. And yet it was decided by guards and tackles and centers and by a guy blocking a punt.

From 1999 to 2007, as Arizona faded from national and Pac-10 football relevance, the Wildcats couldn't beat you with big plays or, as they did Saturday, with a lot of smaller ones. Now they can beat you both ways.

It is the surest sign that Mike Stoops' team is in position to remain in the Top 25 and contend for the Rose Bowl deep into November.

"That's good recruiting and player development," said Stoops, who, in his seventh year, has rebuilt UA football and made it competitive much the way Larry Smith did from 1980 to '86.

Stoops laughed and admitted, "I'm usually not a glass-half-full guy."

But this time, after finding a way to beat Iowa, the Wildcats can drink up.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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