Sept. 21, 2013
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IOWA CITY, Iowa — You don’t step to the plate at Yankee Stadium and hit more home runs than Babe Ruth. You don’t enter The Forum and sink more sky hooks than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Likewise, upstaging Nile Kinnick in the stadium that bears his name has never happened.
University of Iowa junior Kevonte Martin-Manley returned four punts for 184 yards and two touchdowns as the Hawkeyes destroyed Western Michigan, 59-3. The punt return yardage total is 17 less than Kinnick’s school record, but prior to Martin-Manley, no Hawkeye had ever returned two punts for a touchdown in the same game.
When you’re involved in an eight-touchdown day, individual statistics get lost in the shuffle. The UI punt return yardage mark did too, until Martin-Manley was replaced by his backup, redshirt freshman Riley McCarron.
“At the end of the game when I wasn’t playing any more they decided to mention it to me,” Martin-Manley said with a wry smile. “I heard I was 16 or 17 yards away from Nile Kinnick’s record. It would have been an honor to break it, but it is still an honor to be mentioned in that type of status.”
Kinnick’s big punt return afternoon came on Oct. 7, 1939 — the year he won the Heisman Trophy. During a 32-29 victory against Indiana in Iowa City, Kinnick fielded nine punts for 201 yards, none going for more than 50 yards.
Kinnick averaged 22.3 yards per return that record-setting day, 23.7 yards per return less than Martin-Manley averaged Saturday against the Broncos.
“I was smiling from ear to ear,” Martin-Manley said. “Celebrating with those guys in the end zone was a great moment.”
“With all due respect to Kevonte, I love the guy, he’s a great young man. I think it’s OK if that (record) stayed right where it’s at. Not that we would have held him back, but that’s one that needs to stay.”
UI football coach
For the game, Western Michigan was forced into 10 punts, including six series in a row to begin the game. On his first return, Martin-Manley fielded the ball at his own 34 and returned it 44 yards to the Western Michigan 22. The next two punts stayed away from Martin-Manley, and his second return (and fourth Western Michigan punt of the game) went for minus-6 yards.
If his second return gave the Broncos a false security that it was OK to kick his way, Martin-Manley made them pay…in the form of 12 points in 59 seconds. The first score came from 83 yards, the second from 63. The last Hawkeye with a punt return touchdown was Andy Brodell (81 yards) against Iowa State on Sept. 13, 2008.
“The first one, it was wide-open in the middle, I hit it and went left,” Martin-Manley said. “I had a couple blockers in front, I ran off them and it was the same for the second one. I went to the right side that time and I got to the (end) zone.”
Martin-Manley said consistency catching punts in practice made him the team’s game-day punt-returner. Big plays will keep him there. This season he averages 31.1 yards on seven returns.
“We were trying to kick it away from them,” said Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck. “We were getting out-athleted at times when we were covering. We went to the rugby kick after that, and he returned a rugby kick. That’s what happens when you can catch that thing on the fly.”
Martin-Manley joins an elite group. Only two other Big Ten Conference players have returned two punts for a touchdown in the same game. The first was Earl Girard of Wisconsin on Nov. 8, 1947, against Iowa; the other was Garcia Lane of Ohio State on Oct. 8, 1983, against Purdue.
There were four other Bronco punts following the second Martin-Manley touchdown return: one went for a touchback, another was downed at the Iowa 11, and with time expired in the third period, Martin-Manley called for a fair catch at his own 17. With just less than 10 minutes left, McCarron replaced Martin-Manley and returned a punt eight yards.
“With all due respect to Kevonte, I love the guy, he’s a great young man,” UI head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I think it’s OK if that (record) stayed right where it’s at. Not that we would have held him back, but that’s one that needs to stay.”
The Kinnick-like effort from Martin-Manley, as well as contributions from a roster full of Hawkeyes, led to the most points in a game for the Hawkeyes since a 62-10 win against Northwestern in 2002. It is the first time Iowa topped 50 points at home since a 52-28 decision against the Gophers in 2005.
Speaking of Minnesota, the Hawkeyes open the Big Ten season up north next Saturday. The Gophers are undefeated in four tries and have defended their home turf three consecutive times. Iowa has never won at TCF Bank Stadium — falling 27-24 in 2010 and 22-21 in 2011.
Then again, before Saturday, the Hawkeyes had never defeated Western Michigan. And no one had ever seriously challenged the feats of Nile Kinnick.