IOWA CITY, Iowa — The way Noah Fant tells it, his 23-yard touchdown reception was as easy as it gets. He catches a fourth-down pass and he only sees green turf between him and the end zone.
Watching it live was a different experience. Fant carried one defender on his back and plowed through another over the final 7 yards to make Iowa’s most critical play in a 31-14 victory over North Texas on Saturday.
Fant didn’t know he utilized his strength, one of his most underrated skills, to make the play that helped swing the game in the Hawkeyes’ favor.
“I don’t,” Fantz said. “My biggest focus, any play, is to get across the goal line. I was within range, and I was able to stay on my feet. It’s a good thing.”
Noah Fant dragging defenders into the endzone on 4th and 5!! pic.twitter.com/hbEMplyvVZ
— HeavensBarstool (@HeavensHawkeye) September 16, 2017
Iowa’s monster emerges
It was a play only he makes.
The 6-foot-5, 232-pound Fant is the kind of football unicorn you only find at tight end. He’s quick enough to play wide receiver. He’s physical enough to plant a defensive end into the turf on a running play.
On his touchdown, he combined it all. Fant ran a 15-yard in route and beat North Texas safety Khairi Muhammad. Quarterback Nate Stanley was just looking to move the chains on fourth-and-5, and Fant was his best option.
Fant headed up field at the 12-yard line and started to pull away from Muhammad. His only option was to jump on Fant’s back. The tight end, who doesn’t remember any of this, churned his legs with Muhammad hanging on like a bull rider hoping to last 8 seconds.
Muhammad slowed down Fant enough for North Texas defensive back Nate Brooks to meet Fant at the 2-yard line. Fant lowered his right shoulder and Brooks bounced to the ground, clearing that wide open path Fant loves to the end zone.
“He is really strong in the weight room and really has good football strength,” wide receiver Nick Easley said. “That dude is a monster. He is a freak of nature. He can do anything with the ball in his hands.”
Fant draws attention for his athleticism and playmaking ability. Fans dig receptions, not pancake blocks.
His strength, though, is as important to his production as his agility. Without it, Fant doesn’t score.
“He is a physical guy,” running back Toren Young said. “He has been doing that all camp. He is real strong. I’ve seen him in the weight room. It wasn’t a surprise.”
New Kirk and Noah Fant
It was a play that might not have happened a few years ago. The joke with Kirk Ferentz is he would punt on first down if he could win that way.
Old Kirk certainly punts in the third quarter with Iowa trailing 14-10. He was as conservative as Ronald Reagan.
New Kirk, who emerged around 2015, is willing to take a calculated gamble. He saw a game hanging in the balance. The Hawkeyes already had 2 touchdowns called back. The Mean Green were moving the ball consistently for two-plus quarters.
His analytics people tell him to go for it on fourth-and-5 in opponent territory. So did his gut.
“We just kinda felt like we needed to do something,” Ferentz said. “We were just running in quicksand a little bit.”
The Hawkeyes needed Fant to pull them out.
“It was critical to go for it and say we are going to play for the win here and not play for field position,” guard Keegan Render said. “… I think that was the turning point in the game.”
The developing playmaker
It was a play Iowa is getting used to seeing.
The Hawkeyes turned to Fant on a fourth-and-goal at the 2-yard line to jump-start the offense in the opener against Wyoming.
They did the same on Saturday. Fant isn’t Mr. Fourth Down, but he’s trending in that direction.
“It’s kind of similar to the same thing with the Wyoming game,” Fant said. “(Offensive coordinator) Brian Ferentz isn’t afraid to go for it on fourth down. When he calls those plays in, we are confident in what he is calling and we go out and try to execute it.”
Execution is one thing. Running through a defender is another.
Fant, who momentarily left the game with a left shoulder injury late in the second half, foreshadowed what was to come. The offensive line and running backs bullied the Mean Green the rest of the way. The Hawkeyes added 2 fourth-quarter touchdowns to ensure the final score was more one-sided than it looked early in the third quarter.
“That was big, and then you could feel it on the next drive, we were starting to lean on them and they were starting to fade a little bit,” Render said. “I think that was a good play for us.”
One Fant needs to see a replay to fully comprehend. His teammates don’t need to see it again to know what it means.
This won’t be the last time he makes a play like that.
“He is a really good athlete,” offensive tackle Sean Welsh said. “He has done a lot for us so far, and it’s early. I’m really excited to see what he can do in the future for us.”