IOWA CITY, Iowa – With all eyes on Iowa City senior Tim Dwight, Davenport sophomore Tony Collins returned two mid-game punts for exactly 100 yards against Illinois on Saturday.
His 61-yard TD run made the score 14-3 and started the "here we go again" thinking. And his 39-yarder electrified the sellout crowd just after halftime, even if that drive ended with a goal-line fumble by Dwight.
Once again, Illini special teams took a beating. Ryan Tabloff averaged 39 yards on 11 punts, but the Illini couldn't effectively cover his long ones, and his "directional" kicks were nowhere near the coffin corner.
"Our philosophy was to try to punt the ball into the corner," coach Ron Turner said, "but we didn't execute. We have to do it better."
Tabloff said the Kinnick Stadium crosswind made it difficult to control his punts.
"When the ball was on the hash mark, I was to kick to the nearest boundary," he said. "When the ball was in the middle, I was to go to the left sideline.
"I was very conscious of the crosswind, and that made it difficult to place. I aimed for the corner, and the wind took it out on the 25. It's tough. We made that change this week, and I've never done that before. But that's no excuse. I should have done better."
It was not a good performance for Tabloff. His longest punt, 57 yards, went into the end zone, reducing the actual gain to 37. His five out-of-bounds punts traveled 33, 37, 20, 22 and 49 yards. Three others were returned for 61, 39 and 21 yards, dramatically changing the game.
"Big plays have killed us in all four of our games," Turner said. "The (TD) punt return before halftime was destructive. We wanted to punt the ball away from them."
Tabloff faced a difficult situation in the second quarter. With the wind against him, he needed a tight, driving spiral to get reasonable distance. Anything high would have been held up. The punt Collins returned for the TD appeared excellent, but Collins was able to escape to his right and reach a wall of Hawkeye blockers on the sideline.
"He (Collins) ran the rim and broke contain completely," Tabloff said. "On his second big return, I was able to make the tackle. It's not good when the punter is involved with the tackle.
"We learned in this game that Iowa is very efficient at getting to the outside, and we should have done a better job in preventing that."
The upshot was an Illini special teams effort that rivaled the loss in Louisville, where the Cardinals won 26-14 with an 85-yard punt return and a fake punt that sparked the go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter.
Of his own punting game, Iowa coach Hayden Fry said:
"Jason Baker did a heck of a job (40.1 average on seven punts). He probably won the job today. He was very consistent."
The Illini's longest return was a 12-yarder by Rob Majoy.