IOWA CITY, Iowa - Tony Moeaki is called brittle and unreliable by critics. In fairness to those folks, although it's clearly not his fault, the oft-injured tight end teases with his talent.
A healthy Moeaki returned from a three-game layoff Saturday night to show off the skills that arguably make him the best NFL prospect on Iowa's team. The senior started the game with a crushing pancake block, one of several on the night. His presence further was felt with his athleticism as a receiver.
Welcome back, No. 81.
The 12th-ranked Hawkeyes remained unbeaten with a 30-28, primetime victory in front of a raucous sellout at Kinnick Stadium. Moeaki finished with 6 receptions for 105 yards and two scores.
"Unbelievable, right? Unbelievable. I mean, you guys saw. He's unreal," left tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "He just brings another dimension to our team. You see where he could have helped us in these last three weeks. It's unbelievable to have him out there because you see how much he opens up our playbook. I'm not taking anything away from (Allen) Reisner, He's great, too. But having a guy like (Moeaki) is unbelievable."
Moeaki opened the Iowa scoring with a 34-yard catch and run down the seam to tie the game at 7-7 with just under five minutes to play in the first quarter. It brought back memories of the 2007 game here against Syracuse. The Illinois native looked unstoppable that night. The next game he went down at Wisconsin and hasn't gotten up much since that time in Madison.
"Yeah, it was just a play we worked on," Moeaki said. "Rick had the freedom to check it to that play and that's what we did. We just executed it."
Ironically, Syracuse's head coach at the time, Greg Robinson, coached Michigan's defense on Saturday night.
"He's just an incredible athlete and it's really unfortunate that he's suffered through these injuries in his career," receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos said. "He's one of the best teammates I've ever played with as far as talent. His love of the game is amazing. There's nothing about Tony that's a fluke. I know the defensive coordinator for Michigan doesn't want to face Tony. He's giving Coach Robinson nightmares."
The Hawkeyes were hanging on to a two-point lead early in the fourth quarter when Moeaki again got loose down the middle for a 42-yard scoring play. It gave Iowa the points it desperately needed as Michigan surged late in the period.
"I was wide open, and to be honest, I basically jogged in," Moeaki said. "I think Reisner and DJK threw some good blocks for me. I went in untouched."
Moeaki has sustained injuries the last two seasons that have not allowed him to get on the field. He suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 1 this season and asked the coaches to let him play before this contest. Head man Kirk Ferentz wasn't having it. He wanted his senior to come back at 100 percent so he could enjoy the rest of the final season at full strength.
"I trust Coach Ferentz," Moeaki said. "If he thought I could have played then he would have played me in previous weeks. Maybe it's for the best."
Moeaki drifted out of a pile of fans charging the field as the final horn sounded. He raised his helmet over his head as a few stray followers extended congratulations. He appreciated the moment.
"Anytime he got hurt the last two years, it kind of hurt me," Bulaga said. "Our lockers are right next to each other and I talk to him every day. He's a guy that I think could have been out of here a year ago playing in the NFL if he would have stayed healthy because he's that kind of player. He's that special. He's that good of an athlete.
"Every time he went down, it kind of hurt everybody knowing what kind of guy he is and how good of a player he is. Anytime a guy like that goes down, it hurts. To see him back out there was awesome. There's nothing better."
Bulaga's response is in line with all of his teammates when it comes to describing Moeaki.. They marvel at his talent beyond his kindness.
"Shoot, I would love to come back after my hamstrings and put up a hundred (yards) and two touchdowns. I can‘t even do that right now," said receiver Trey Stross, who has dealt with his fair share of injuries. "He did really well in the blocking. I got to see that. That's the only kid in the world that's good at tennis, basketball, baseball, football. He's good at everything. He picks up NCAA football (video game) and he just kills you."
Moeaki, who played tennis in high school and his father coaches the sport, said he was sore after the game, but walked without a limp and indicated he would be ready to go for next week's big game at Wisconsin.
"You know, it's tough sitting out games," he said. "The way it happened, just somebody falling on my ankle. You can't really control that. Sitting out is hard, but I'll definitely savor this one."