By RICK BROWN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Deception is the lifeblood of a good offensive football team. Usually, that deception comes on a well-executed play that fools the defense, but sometimes, it all comes down to a player making a play on the fly.
In this instance, University of Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent was covering up his own mistake by thinking on his feet.
The Hawkeyes were leading Miami of Ohio early in the fourth quarter Saturday, 24-14. Iowa faced a third-and-4 from the Miami 49. Quarterback Nate Stanley and Sargent connected on a 10-yard play that led to a crucial momentum-changing touchdown.
“It looked like a little slip screen,” said Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. “It wasn’t.”
In truth, Sargent’s job was to pick up the blitz. He didn’t.
“I blew the pickup,” Sargent said after a season-opening 38-14 victory under the lights at sold-out Kinnick Stadium. “That was my guy. I just went for the kill shot and I missed him. I tried to get out there as fast as I could because I knew Nate was under pressure. He found me and I tried to make a play.”
Execution had been replaced by instinct, and resulted in a 10-yard gain.
“Nate found him and kept the drive going,” Ferentz said. “Good players do that.”
That was one of several big plays turned in Saturday by Sargent, who looks more confident and mature on the field with a year of Division I experience under his belt. He came to Iowa in 2018 after a season at Iowa Western of Council Bluffs.
“It’s just experience,” Ferentz said of Sargent’s growth. “You can see he’s a lot more confident out there, and he made some big, nice plays (Saturday). He’s a great young guy who works hard. He has found his rhythm.”
Sargent led the Hawkeyes with 91 yards rushing in 14 carries, including a touchdown. He also had four catches for a team-best 65 yards. The last Iowa back to be that productive as a runner and receiver was Akrum Wadley, who had 118 rushing yards and 72 receiving yards in a 44-41 victory at Iowa State in 2017.
“Last year I was playing off my talent, not knowing how to read defenses or be patient,” said the 5-foot 9-inch, 212-pound junior from Key West, Florida. “Now I feel like I have more knowledge of the game. I understand things more. I understand concepts.”
Sargent played all 13 games last season, starting the final four. He finished with a team-best 745 rushing yards. He also had 17 catches for 156 yards.
Saturday showed that Sargent should be even more productive as a receiving option for Stanley this season. Getting him in open space to take advantage of his speed is a plus.
“I love to be in the open field,” Sargent said. “That’s the goal right there.”
Stanley spread the wealth in Saturday’s season opener, completing a pass to 10 different receivers. Five of them — Shaun Beyer, Oliver Martin, Nico Ragaini, Tyrone Tracy, and Tyler Goodson — made their first catch as Hawkeyes.
Sargent matched a career high with his four catches. His 65 receiving yards were a career-best. Forty-one of those yards came on a play during a second-quarter touchdown drive that erased a 10-7 deficit.
Facing a third-and-16 situation from midfield, Stanley hooked up with Sargent on a screen play that took the ball to the Miami 9.
“I would have loved to score a touchdown on that play, but it kind of sparked the team,” Sargent said.
Stanley threw a touchdown pass to Brandon Smith on the next play, and Iowa never trailed again.
Look for more of Sargent as a runner and receiver as the 2019 season unfolds.
“I feel like I’m versatile,” Sargent said.
And don’t be surprised if a touch of freelance football finds its way to the field.
“First comes assignment football,” Sargent said. “From there I let my talent take over.”