AMES, Iowa — Understanding why Akrum Wadley didn’t worry about Ihmir Smith-Marsette requires an understanding of New Jersey football.
When Wadley approached Smith-Marsette about moving past his lost fumble from his Iowa debut, the freshman responded with one word.
Mentioning their old high school told Wadley that Smith-Marsette was fine. For them, it stands for toughness. It stands for never hanging your head.
It stands for everything Smith-Marsette needed to rely on to overcome the nightmare beginning of his college career and become Iowa’s latest Cy-Hawk game hero. Smith-Marsette’s 5-yard touchdown reception in overtime capped a wild 44-41 comeback win over Iowa State on Saturday.
“That will tell you a lot about Ihmir,” Wadley said. “That is like my little brother. He is very resilient. That last week he didn’t get off, he didn’t go his way. He is tough, (a) Jersey guy.”
It showed with his 4-catch, 72-yard 2-touchdown performance in Jack Trice Stadium.
No big deal
Smith-Marsette wasn’t fazed by his miscue. None of his teammates — not even Wadley — knew as much when Iowa State week began.
Smith-Marsette’s debut was bad. A Hollywood summer blockbuster flopping on opening weekend bad. He played 1 snap against Wyoming. He fumbled a jet sweep and didn’t step on the playing field again.
Confidence is a fragile thing, especially for a new player. Illinois abused starting center James Daniels when he played right tackle in 2015. It was a career lowlight, but it didn’t define his season. His teammates made sure of it as everyone pumped him with confidence the next week.
He never forgot about it and planned to do the same thing with Smith-Marsette. When he told Smith-Marsette to keep his head up he noticed what Wadley did. Daniels didn’t need to be fluent in New Jersey shorthand to recognize a player already over his mistake.
Smith-Marsette called his fumble a “minor mistake” in quotes distributed to the media
“He is a very smart kid,” Daniels said. “You really don’t have to say anything.”
In retrospect, the Hawkeyes should have seen it coming. Tight end T.J. Hockenson didn’t connect the dots in the opener, but he sees it clearly now.
Smith-Marsette’s personality didn’t change against Wyoming. He was cracking jokes before facing Wyoming. He was still telling them minutes after fumbling the football.
“He is not a guy that has mental factors that impact him,” Hockenson said. “I would have expected him to come back better.”
‘A little spunk’
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz isn’t fond of mistakes. He especially isn’t fond of freshmen making mistakes. Newcomers dropping the ball like Smith-Marsette stay on the bench for a while.
But Smith-Marsette isn’t like most freshmen. Ferentz wanted to play him again against the Cowboys. The game just never lent itself to it. He vowed to use him against Iowa State.
He saw something in the kid he liked. Ferentz picked up on the Weequahic.
“It really goes back to the first time we met him,” Ferentz said. “There is something about Ihmir, a little spirit that we like … he has a little spunk to him, a little spunk, a little personality, seemed like the kind of guy who could shake that off.”
The Hawkeyes went to him on their second series. Smith-Marsette caught a 9-yard pass. Most importantly, he held onto the football.
“I don’t even think he was thinking about [ball security] after the first play,” Hockenson said.
This iteration of the in-state rivalry turned into one of the wildest in its history. The teams traded big plays and touchdowns with each building, and blowing, a double-digit lead.
With the Hawkeyes down 10, their fourth quarter comeback started with Smith-Marsette flying past two Iowa State defenders on a vertical route. He hauled in a 15-yard reception for his first career touchdown.
“I knew on this one I just had to put it on the back line and that he could make a play,” quarterback Nate Stanley said. “He went out and made a heck of a play.”
The Weequahic stands out
Iowa found itself on Iowa State’s 5-yard line in overtime. A touchdown wins the game. The play relayed to Stanley had Smith-Marsette as the primary receiver. He would motion to his left before running an out route.
Stanley loved the call. Smith-Marsette quickly moved up the depth chart in preseason camp by making big plays. He did all week again in practice with this exact play. Every time Iowa ran the rollout Smith-Marsette caught it.
Saturday was no different. Stanley led him toward the sideline and away from cornerback Brian Peavy. Smith-Marsette used both hands to catch the football, securing his place in Iowa history as he fell into the end zone.
“This week I came back and they showed they believed in me and I took advantage of it,” Smith-Marsette said.
His Weequahic showed. Without it, he doesn’t rebound and Iowa doesn’t win the game.
And now, Wadley isn’t the only Hawkeye to know what it means.
“You got to be tough,” Wadley said. “… You never catch us with our heads down and there are a lot of special guys from Weequahic.”
— Danny Lawhon (@DannyLawhon) September 9, 2017