Taylor Time: Why Iowa's punter might hold the key to defeating Michigan
There are three sides to every football team: offense, defense and special teams.
Quarterbacks get most of the praise and recognition on the offensive side. Wide receivers get the supporting cast nod. Defensively, cornerbacks have been the hot commodity as of late for their ability to eliminate a go-to weapon from the opposing team. If anything, pass-rushers are still the top dawgs on defense for their ability to suck the life out of a game and put the fear of all holy hell into a quarterback’s eyes.
What about an appreciation for special teams? Why are we forgetting that kickers and punters have feelings too, people? They’re just like you and me, though they are blessed with a leg like Seabiscuit and blast a ball 70 yards downfield with impeccable hangtime.
As Week 5 of the college football season approaches, Iowa football has its identity figured out. The Hawkeyes do just enough on offense to remain competitive. Meanwhile, the defense continues to show up and show out against lesser teams.
There’s a reason for both sides having success. The name? Tory Taylor — Iowa’s punter and MVP of the 2022 season. Yes, at this point in the year, the Hawkeyes’ best player is the kid coming in to clean up the offense’s mess.
Might as well call him the Kevin O’Leary of Iowa City. He is ‘Mr. Wonderful’ after all.
Currently, Iowa’s offense ranks 124th in passing and 120th in scoring. The Hawkeyes’ best offensive performance came in Week 3 in a 27-0 win over Nevada. Let’s not get carried away here, the Wolf Pack ranks 104th in the nation in total defense and 95th in points allowed — numbers that would be worse without the benefit of playing the Hawks.
When an offense is as putrid as the Hawkeyes, a team relies heavily on its defense to carry the load. For that to occur, special teams need to be nearly flawless in execution. So far, Taylor has been that and then some.
Taylor’s toe has been the catalyst for Iowa’s strong defensive start this season. The punter from down under is currently tied for the 6th-most punts this season (28) and ranks inside the top-20 nationally for average yards per kick (47.3 yards). He also has been consistent in terms of net yards and placement. Taylor leads the nation in punts inside the 20-yard line with 17. He also leads the country with 12 punts of over 50 yards.
This isn’t a one-year wonder thing, either. Last fall, Taylor led all FBS teams in punts dropped inside the 20-yard line with 38. He also had a touchback rate of only 14.4%, one the lowest among punters at the Power 5 level.
What does all this mean for Iowa? Taylor’s leg is putting pressure on opposing offenses to change their game plan. Pinned back deep in their territory, coordinators often are only left with a handful of plays at their disposal that could garner positive yards. And if all else fails, offenses will have to take a deep shot to clear space, meaning it’s a perfect time for the defense to cause a turnover.
Need proof? Look at the Hawkeyes’ 27-10 win over Rutgers from last week. Taylor’s first punt — a 44-yard moon shot — forced the Scarlet Knights to start at their 4-yard line. Five plays later, Iowa would take a 7-3 lead after Cooper DeJean returned a 45-yard interception for a score.
It happened again later in the game. Taylor delivered a booming 35-yard punt with just over 9 minutes remaining in the second quarter. Rutgers began its drive at the 7, forcing QB Evan Simon to get creative with his passing. On 3rd-and-5 from the 12, Simon found Joshua Youngblood for the conversion, but Sebastian Castro delivered the hit stick causing a fumble. A 30-yard run on a scoop-and-score by Kaevon Merriweather pushed Iowa’s lead to 14-3. How’s that for circumventing an inept offense?
Of Taylor’s 6 punts, 4 landed inside the 10. One was tipped at the line by Max Melton, leading to exceptional field position for Rutgers near its own 40. Taylor’s other punt came from Iowa’s 7-yard line, and it traveled 51 yards to put the Scarlet Knights at their own 37.
Saturday’s matchup against Michigan might give fans a better indication of the Hawkeyes’ status among stellar defenses. Maryland kept things close in the Big House last week, forcing the Wolverines to punt 4 times and holding them to under 500 yards.
The best way to put the Wolverines in a corner? Literally put them in a corner with great punting. Taylor has done that all season. He’ll have a chance to do it again Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
And it might be the reason the Hawkeyes stand a chance.