Whether or not Iowa's scheduled Music City Bowl with Missouri happens next Wednesday (due to COVID-19 problems within the Iowa program), one Hawkeye has already played his final game in black and gold. Ihmir Smith-Marsette announced on Thursday that he was declaring for the NFL Draft and ending his college football career.
Whether Smith-Marsette would have been able to play in the Music City Bowl is unclear -- he injured his ankle in Iowa's final regular season game, a 28-7 victory over Wisconsin two weeks ago.
Smith-Marsette ends his Iowa career as part of a senior class that went 33-14 overall, and 21-14 in Big Ten competition, including wins over every Big Ten team (except Michigan, although any redshirt seniors can add that feather to their caps) in their time in the program. They went 12-0 against Iowa State, Minnesota, and Nebraska and 3-0 in bowl games (with the chance -- maybe! -- to make it 4-0 next week), highlighted by last year's 49-24 demolition of USC in the Holiday Bowl.
That bowl game also happened to be perhaps the apex of Smith-Marsette's Iowa career. He scored three touchdowns... in the first half. Check that: he scored three touchdowns... in the second quarter. And he scored each touchdown in a different way. The first was a six-yard run on a jet sweep.
The second was a 98-yard kickoff return explosion.
And the third was a 12-yard catch-and-run scamper into the end zone.
Those plays were Smith-Marsette in a nutshell: speed, the ability to change directions fluidly at a moment's notice, and absolutely explosive big play ability. When Smith-Marsette had the ball, you didn't want to blink, lest you miss something spectacular.
Smith-Marsette first made his mark at Iowa in just the second game of his Iowa career, catching two touchdowns against Iowa State in a wild 44-41 OT thriller, including the game-winner in overtime.
But he really emerged at Iowa as an explosive and potent kickoff returner, one of the best in the history of the program. After constantly threatening to break a return for a touchdown during his first two seasons on campus, he busted free in Iowa's final regular season game of 2019, against Nebraska.
And then, of course, he managed to do it again the very next game against USC. Alas, ISM suffered the fate of many great kickoff returners, which is that teams simply stopped kicking to him, deciding that kicking the ball through the end zone, kicking it to a different side of the field, or even pooching it -- anything but putting the ball in his hands on a kick return -- was a more desirable outcome.
Fortunately, Smith-Marsette had other ways to impact the game and Iowa's offensive coaches, to their credit, found more ways to get the ball into his hands over the last two seasons. He was second on the team in receptions each of those seasons (to Nico Ragaini last year and Sam LaPorta this year), but only narrowly -- by two receptions each year. He caught the ball on deep balls, he caught the ball on intermediate routes, he caught the ball on short screen passes that gave him an ability to use his quickness to make defenders miss and pick up YAC. And he was increasingly used as part of the running game, both as a decoy to confuse defenses and as an actual running option himself, often on jet sweeps or reverses where his speed + misdirection often equaled disaster for defenses.
|YEAR||REC||REC YD||REC TD||CAR||RUSH YD||RUSH TD||KR||KR YD||KR TD|
Smith-Marsette ends his Iowa career with 3,409 total yards (on 197 touches, a 17.3 yards per touch average) and 20 touchdowns -- not bad numbers for a receiver and playmaker on an offense like Iowa's. But Smith-Marsette's lasting legacy will not be his stats. His legacy at Iowa will be the highlights he produced and the enduring memories he created. I mean, just look at these highlights:
He was So. Much. Fun.
Even his final-ever play in an Iowa uniform was an incredibly memorable highlight:
Biffed landing or not, that's a hell of a way to go out.
In the 20+ years that Kirk Ferentz has been in charge of the Iowa program, there have only been a handful of players who have been the caliber of dynamic playmaker that ISM was, who have had his level of explosiveness. There have been very few players at Iowa over those two decades who have been as much fun to watch. He was always a joy to watch, a black and gold blur taunting and teasing opponents, while electrifying and entertaining Iowa fans.
It's been a pleasure to watch him in black and gold for the last four years and we wish him nothing but the best as he pursues an NFL career. Thanks for the memories, Ihmir, and hit 'em with the afterburners at the next level.