IOWA CITY, Iowa — It takes a scalpel to slice the differences in some minds between a great sports moment and a terrific play.
A moment constitutes the culmination of a series of great plays, such as a fourth-quarter drive that ends with a game-winning field goal. The finality of the moment often amplifies the importance of a chip-shot field goal or extra point, and can overshadow the third-down catch or pivotal turnover.
This list comprises the top Iowa football plays over the last 10 years. Yes, field goals are included. They were important plays at crucial moments. But what people remember most is the moment.
This list tries to identify the best plays, which include game-changing punt returns, runs, catches, tackles and touchdowns. Those plays were made by All-Americans such as Shonn Greene and Adrian Clayborn, and Big Ten honorees such as Marvin McNutt and Micah Hyde.
The moments loom larger for the context of the situation. But the plays define the moments.
10. Many happy returns
Few plays are as dynamic as a punt return for a touchdown, unless you do it twice in one game. That’s what Kevonte Martin-Manley did in 2013 against Western Michigan. Riley McCarron provided an exclamation point in 2016 at Illinois with a 55-yard punt return for a score. Desmond King put the Hawkeyes in position to score the go-ahead touchdown with a 34-yard return late against Iowa State in 2015. Derrell Johnson-Koulianos twice brought the Hawkeyes back to life with kickoff returns for scores, one at Ohio State in 2009 and another at Minnesota in 2010.
The No. 10 play was pivotal as much for the situation as it was for the game. After consecutive 6-6 regular-season finishes and a last-second Cy-Hawk defeat in 2007, Iowa needed a win in the worst way against Iowa State in 2008. On a water-logged Kinnick Stadium field, where the drainage system shut down hours before kickoff, the Hawkeyes and Cyclones were tied 3-3 entering the fourth quarter. After a touchdown by running back Shonn Greene boosted Iowa to a 10-3 lead, the defense forced Iowa State to punt from its 34.
Iowa senior receiver Andy Brodell fielded the punt at his own 19. He retreated a couple of steps and made one defender miss. Brodell then burst up the field and evaded five more Cyclones on an 89-yard punt return with 6:19 remaining to give Iowa a two-touchdown advantage and seal a instate victory. The return elevated the Hawkeyes to a 3-0 start en route to a 9-4 season.
9. Gang Greene performance
In Iowa’s physical style of play, nothing is more gratifying than watching a big-time run emerge from either perfect blocking or a terrific individual effort. Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard either shook, juked, stiff-armed or darted past seven would-be tacklers on a 44-yard run that began in his own end zone against Iowa State in 2015. Running back Jordan Canzeri produced several highlight-reel runs in 2015, but none were bigger than his 68-yard scamper at Nebraska to push the Hawkeyes’ lead to 11 points midway through the third quarter. Marcus Coker played briefly at Iowa, but he stamped his 219-yard Insight Bowl performance in 2010 against Missouri with a bruising 62-yard touchdown run. LeShun Daniels displayed some nifty footwork in a game-clinching 51-yard run against Minnesota in 2015, and then raw power while running over a pair of Michigan defenders in 2016.
Shonn Greene ran with both tenacious fury and evasiveness in 2008, which he showed by juking Purdue safety Frank Duong on a 75-yard touchdown and then leveling Duong on a 14-yard score. Greene, the 2008 Doak Walker Award winner, produced the No. 9 play of the last decade earlier in 2008 against Wisconsin. Midway through the second quarter, Greene took a handoff on an outside zone play and raced 14 yards up the field untouched until reaching the Badgers 20. Greene spun free from one tackler and shook off another. Greene then shrugged one arm-tackle attempt at the 5-yard line and bounced off an other Badger defender at the goal line for a 34-yard touchdown. It was one of four he scored that day as part of a 217-yard performance.
8. Slash and Sash
Former Iowa safety Tyler Sash was the ultimate playmaker in Iowa’s secondary from 2008-10. In three seasons, Sash recorded 13 interceptions to rank sixth in Iowa history. Among his most memorable was one of his earliest in 2008 against third-ranked Penn State. Late in the fourth quarter, Sash picked off an errant Darryl Clark pass and returned it to the Iowa 29-yard line. The Hawkeyes turned that play into a last-second field goal in a 24-23 upset of the previously unbeaten Nittany Lions.
Playmaking ability includes being around the ball for funny bounces. That’s where Sash’s wild and wacky 86-yard interception return in 2009 against Indiana comes in as the No. 8 play. With the Hawkeyes trailing 21-7 and backed against their goal line, Iowa linebacker A.J. Edds smashed Hoosiers quarterback Ben Chappell as the ball left his hand. The ball caromed off Sash’s helmet, hit defensive lineman Christian Ballard, floated off tackle James Brewer and into Sash’s hands. The strong safety raced untouched for the score that kept the Hawkeyes in the game. They won, 42-24.
7. Wadley wows ’em
No Iowa offensive player has been more dynamic the last 10 years than running back Akrum Wadley. He had a 4-touchdown, 204-yard game at Northwestern in 2015. He posted a 65-yard run for a score in the first quarter against Indiana in 2015, and a 26-yard fourth-quarter touchdown to win at Rutgers in 2016. Last year twice he rushed for 75-yard scores, one at Purdue and one against Nebraska. He scored Iowa’s only touchdown and put up 73 percent of Iowa’s yards in a 14-13 upset of third-ranked Michigan last November.
Choosing from among so many plays is difficult. Perhaps the one that fits best for the N0. 7 play came at Minnesota last fall. With the Hawkeyes behind 7-6 and less than 6 minutes remaining, Iowa took over at its 46. On the first play, Wadley took the handoff and raced left. He evaded two Gophers near the line of scrimmage then raced 40 yards untouched for the game-winning touchdown. It was a crucial situation against a border rival, and Wadley showed he was capable of making big plays in the clutch.
6. Safety dance
Explosive, physical plays have a way of changing games. Half of Iowa tackle Brandon Scherff’s video highlights came from his performance against Ohio State in 2013 when he dominated every defender who crossed him. Tight end George Kittle and center Austin Blythe humiliated their Northwestern defensive opponents on a 4-yard touchdown run by Akrum Wadley in 2015. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens ripped the ball from Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner’s hands in the final seconds to preserve a 24-21 Iowa win in 2013.
Twice in games the last 10 years Iowa trailed top-5 opponents 10-0 before a safety turned Iowa’s fortunes. In 2009 at Penn State, defensive end Broderick Binns recovered Penn State quarterback Darryl Clark’s second-quarter fumble in the end zone to put Iowa on the scoreboard. The Hawkeyes won that game 21-10. Last year, in our No. 6 play, Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson recorded another second-quarter safety with the Hawkeyes down 10-0.
With Michigan facing second-and-10 at its 2-yard line, running back De’Veon Smith lined up in the I-formation behind quarterback Wilton Speight. Smith took the handoff and tried to follow his fullback to the left. Johnson blew past right guard Kyle Kalis and blasted Smith a yard deep into the end zone. Johnson wrapped up Smith and slammed him to the turf for the safety. The points ignited the Hawkeyes and their sold-out crowd. Iowa won 14-13.
5. Run and Hyde
Iowa cornerback Micah Hyde was named the Big Ten’s top defensive back in 2012, a year when the team finished 4-8. He ran down Northwestern’s Venric Mark on a play nearly everyone would have shrugged off. At the 2010 Insight Bowl, Hyde picked off Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert and returned the ball 72 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
In the last 10 years, Iowa has made several dynamic interceptions. Cornerback B.J. Lowery picked off two in the same game against Western Michigan in 2013. Jim Thorpe Award winner Desmond King brought back a pass 88 yards against Maryland in 2015. Safety Tanner Miller tied an Iowa record with a 98-yard return against Northwestern in 2011. Defensive end Parker Hesse’s 7-yard touchdown return helped propel the Hawkeyes past Nebraska in 2015.
But the return that stands out as the No. 5 play on our list took place in 2010 as a combination of two defensive ballhawks. Early in the Hawkeyes’ 37-6 blasting of No. 5 Michigan State, Iowa safety Tyler Sash intercepted Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins. The pass was woefully underthrown, and Sash stepped in front of Spartans wide receiver B.J. Cunningham at the Iowa 28. About 8 yards into his return, Sash wheeled to his right and lateraled the ball to Hyde at the Iowa 35. Hyde evaded three Michigan State players as he crossed the field. Once Hyde reached the 5-yard line, he dove past another Spartan and into the end zone to finish the touchdown return.
4. Just for kicks
Game-winning field goals have a way of lasting a lifetime, especially in win-or-lose situations. Over the last 10 years, Iowa won three major contests with last-second kicks. In 2008 against No. 3 Penn State, Daniel Murray’s 31-yard field goal with 1 second left lifted the Hawkeyes to a 24-23 win against the 9-0 Nittany Lions. Last year, true freshman Keith Duncan dusted off the same script with a 33-yard field goal in the same direction with no time remaining to beat the 9-0, No. 3 Michigan Wolverines, 14-13.
Those kicks were the culmination of tremendous drives. The plays were routine, and the moments were legendary. Those kicks were different from Marshall Koehn’s game-winner against Pittsburgh in 2015, the No. 4 play. With the score tied and 2 seconds remaining, Koehn lined up to attempt a 57-yard field goal from the left hashmark. Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi tried to freeze him and called timeout, which gave Koehn a warm-up attempt. A moment later, Koehn drilled the shot between the uprights as deep back Tyler Boyd gazed above him. Iowa won 27-24 at Kinnick Stadium.
3. Yo Adrian
Many of Iowa’s most exciting plays have come from blocked kicks. In the 2009 season opener, the Hawkeyes blocked consecutive field-goal attempts by Northern Iowa in the final seconds to preserve a 17-16 victory. Iowa defensive end Drew Ott returned a punt for a touchdown that caromed off a Nebraska upback’s rear end in 2014. Linebacker Ben Niemann returned a blocked punt for a score against Northwestern in 2014, as well. Linebacker Aaron Mends tipped a Maryland punt that led to an offensive touchdown in a 2015 game.
But no special teams play meant more than defensive Adrian Clayborn’s block, scoop and score at fifth-ranked Penn State in 2009. Clayborn’s effort, which produced the No. 3 play, emphatically announced the Hawkeyes’ arrival that season. Iowa trailed 10-5 early in the fourth quarter, and Clayborn bullied past an upback. Clayborn reached out in front of punter Jeremy Boone’s left foot and crushed the ball. Clayborn picked it up and raced 53 yards untouched for a touchdown to put Iowa in the lead. The Hawkeyes scored twice more in the fourth quarter and pounded the Nittany Lions 21-10. Iowa vaulted into the top 15 the following week and was ranked as high as No. 4 that season.
2. ‘7 got 6’
Iowa isn’t known for its passing prowess, but it’s had several exciting moments through the air the last 10 seasons. In 2009, quarterback Ricky Stanzi connected with tight end Tony Moeaki in the corner of the Camp Randall Stadium end zone for the game-deciding score at Wisconsin. In 2013, wide receiver Damond Powell caught a screen pass from quarterback Jake Rudock and raced 74 yards for a score at Minnesota. Later that season, tight end Jake Duzey ran an out-and-up and scored on an 85-yard strike from Rudock. Tevaun Smith scored what nearly became the most important touchdown in Iowa history in 2015 when he snagged an 85-yard fourth-quarter pass from C.J. Beathard to give the Hawkeyes a 13-9 lead against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.
But the biggest passing play — and No. 2 on our list — belonged receiver Marvin McNutt, Iowa’s all-time leader in receiving yards. With an unbeaten record at stake at Michigan State in 2009, Iowa trailed 13-9 with 2 seconds left and faced fourth-and-goal at the Spartans’ 7. McNutt split left of Stanzi and broke inside on cornerback Chris L. Rucker’s single coverage. Stanzi delivered a perfect helmet-high slant pass to McNutt, who snagged it as he crossed the goal line. Iowa won 15-13 on the game’s final play and elevated its record to 8-0.
“When [McNutt’s] number was called, 7 got 6,” former BTN announcer Chris Martin said after the score.
1. Gotta have Faith
Over the last 10 years, there’s been no more important play or even game for Iowa than what took place on Oct. 3, 2015. The Hawkeyes traveled to Camp Randall Stadium and engaged in a nasty, physical battle with their old pals in Wisconsin.
Iowa led 10-6 with 7:50 left in the game. The Badgers faced second-and-goal at the Hawkeyes’ 1. Iowa had six defensive linemen in the game. Wisconsin had two tight ends and two fullbacks. It was power football at its finest. As the ball was snapped, Iowa defender Nate Meier exploded into the ‘A’ gap between Wisconsin center Dan Voltz and right guard Micah Kapoi. Meier’s burst caused Kapoi to step back, and his left foot stepped on quarterback Joel Stave as he was trying to reverse pivot and hand off to running back Taiwan Deal. Stave fell, the ball grazed Deal and squirted to the 4-yard line. Meier slammed Deal into the ball, which rolled directly to Iowa defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie. Ekakitie recovered the fumble at the Iowa 5-yard line, and the Hawkeyes stopped Wisconsin’s best scoring threat.
Our No. 1 play preserved Iowa’s 10-6 win. A Badgers touchdown would have given Wisconsin the lead, probably the game and ultimately the West Division title. Instead, the Hawkeyes raced through the regular season unbeaten with a 12-0 record, clinched the division championship and earned a Rose Bowl berth. It was a game-deciding, season-defining play that was the most important in the last 10 years for Iowa.