By Cody Goodwin
The second quarter of Iowa’s 59-3 bulldozing of Western Michigan belonged to Kevonte Martin-Manley. He made magic, and history, with his feet on two separate plays, and did it all within a 59-second window.
Western Michigan had just went three-and-out on its first possession of that frame. Dareyon Chance ran for a yard, and then quarterback Tyler Van Tubbergen threw an incomplete pass before scampering for five more yards. The punt team was called on. Iowa was prepared.
Martin-Manley said he and his teammates studied film all week to prepare for the Bronco’s rugby-style punt, and saw that Western Michigan left the middle of the field wide open when they it bring out. Iowa ran its middle return all game, knowing that one solid cut could spring a big gain.
“It’s hard to catch them,” Martin-Manley said of the rugby-punt. “That’s the hardest thing, and also seeing the ball off the punter’s foot because he’s rolling out so he’s behind guys blocking. It’s hard to see it.”
But the junior caught the ball easily. He turned up field, followed his blocks and sped off for an 83-yard touchdown return. Kinnick came alive. Martin-Manley was smiling wide — it was his first career punt return for a touchdown. Iowa was up 17-0 after the extra-point.
“The trick on the rugby punts is to field them,” Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz said. “If you can field them cleanly, you’re going to have a chance because the ball doesn’t get up in the air too high, but it’s easier said than done. So Kevonte did a great job fielding those.”
Western Michigan’s offense came back out on the field after getting such a short break. The offensive struggles continued — the Broncos ran once for no gain before Van Tubbergen threw two more incompletions. The punt team was called again. Martin-Manley jogged back out and waited for the kick.
Earlier in the game, before Iowa demolished Western Michigan in all facets of the game, Bronco head coach P.J. Fleck instructed his punt team to kick away from Martin-Manley. He respected his speed and playmaking ability. He didn’t want to give up the big play.
Further, Fleck’s original special teams coach, J.B. Gibboney, resigned a month ago, and left the unit in limbo. He cited personal issues. Fleck assigned Rob Wenger, a graduate assistant, to fill in on an interim basis. He’s since become the full-time coach.
So when Western Michigan opted for the rugby-punt again, it caught Iowa’s return man by surprise. But Martin-Manley caught it again. He followed his blocks, saw a hole and took off. He sprinted 63 more yards and scored another touchdown. Iowa led 24-0. He became just the third Big Ten player in history — and the first in 30 years — to return two punts for a touchdown in the same game, and the first to do so in an Iowa uniform.
“Any time you give a team two touchdowns when you’re on offense and two touchdowns on special teams, you didn’t play well,” Fleck said. “We were trying to get it away from them. We were getting out-athleted at times when we were covering.”
At the day’s end, Martin-Manley amassed 184 return yards on four punt returns. His total amount of punt-return yards nearly matched the amount of combined passing yards from Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard — which was 188. Martin-Manley’s total was just a few strides short of Nile Kinnick’s single-game record of 201 back in 1939. He said he was humble when he was told of how close he came to it.
Down where players could meet with the media after the game, Martin-Manley stood across from a picture on the wall. It was a picture of him, catching a touchdown pass against Pittsburgh from the 2011 season. He called that moment, in that picture, one of the proudest moments of his playing career.
Someone asked him if this game, if those 59 seconds, would replace that picture. He smiled.
“It’s close,” he said.