IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa has become known for nail-biting finishes, which often leaves the Hawkeyes in need of a kicker they can trust in the clutch.
Coach Kirk Ferentz isn't sure he's got a reliable leg to lean on. He used terms like "underwhelming" and "inconsistent" to describe his kickers in the offseason, and he's yet to settle on a starter with the Sept. 4 opener against Eastern Illinois coming up for the ninth-ranked Hawkeyes.
Senior Daniel Murray, whose game-winning field goal against Penn State two years ago helping launch the program's resurgence, entered fall camp in a dead heat with sophomore Trent Mossbrucker for the job.
Ferentz might not settle on either one until Iowa hosts rival Iowa State on Sept. 11, and the competition between Murray and Mossbrucker could last until Big Ten play opens in October.
"It keeps you on your toes all the time," Murray said after a so-so performance during the Hawkeyes' last scrimmage open to the public two weeks ago. "It kind of wears on you a little bit, but that's just something I've learned to deal with."
It's not often that kickers get this much attention in August, but it's become a source of consternation for Iowa, which won four games by three points or fewer last season.
Iowa is deep nearly everywhere, despite battles at running back and for the job of snapping to senior quarterback Ricky Stanzi. All that returning talent from a team that went 11-2 last season has ramped up expectations in Iowa City.
But the Hawkeyes are still a defensive-minded, run-oriented bunch with a habit of making nearly every game a close one — and one bad kick could have major consequences.
Murray, who was supposed to be locked into the job by now, has been solid from short distances during his career. His career-defining kick against the Nittany Lions cut through a cold, biting wind and split the uprights from 31 yards.
But the farther the spot, the shakier Murray's been.
Murray did make a 48-yarder in a win at Wisconsin last year, but he was just 6 of 11 on kicks of 40 yards or longer in 2009. Murray has been working to keep his foot from hitting the ball too high and causing it to hook or fade away from the uprights — not unlike a golfer trying to find his swing.
Murray was 19 of 26 on field goals last season and hit 32 of 33 extra-point tries.
"It's easy to say more consistency, I guess. How do you get that?" Murray said. "The main thing I've been working on is, if you miss one, get back and make the next one."
Mossbrucker was Iowa's starting kicker as a freshman two years ago, despite being pulled in favor of the more experienced Murray against Penn State. He led the Big Ten in field-goal percentage by hitting 13 of 15 attempts in 2008, but he redshirted last season when the coaching staff decided to go with Murray.
Mossbrucker has 2 inches and 20 pounds on the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Murray, but he has yet to even attempt a field goal outside of 40 yards.
"Iron sharpens iron," Mossbrucker said of the push for the starting job.
The Hawkeyes also have a freshman walk-on, Michael Meyer, who could push for playing time.
But that would likely be a worst-case scenario, so it'll be up to either Murray or Mossbrucker to solidify what has become Iowa's most precarious spot entering the season.
Murray's experience certainly helps his chances. But his famous kick from two years ago isn't putting Ferentz's mind at ease.
"If we have to play volleyball during the season, we'll do that," Ferentz said at the start of camp. "They are both capable. That's the good news."