Leistikow's final thoughts: A true Kinnick edge, bold play-calling helped Iowa finish off Minnesota

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kirk Ferentz referred to the noise as “vintage Kinnick.”

Strong safety Geno Stone confirmed that assertion, as Iowa’s defense went out on the field with 2 minutes to go, trying to preserve a four-point lead against Minnesota.

Stone, a thoughtful junior who has played a lot of football at Iowa, ranked it as one of the noisiest Kinnick Stadium environments in his time here.

No. 1, according to Stone? Before the final fourth-and-goal snap against Penn State in 2017.

No. 2? After the pick-six by Amani Hooker that kicked off a stirring 2017 upset of Ohio State.

No. 3? Saturday night, with the Gophers having the ball, 80 yards away from a 10-0 record.

“The whole stadium was on top of them,” Stone said. “You could tell they were really struggling out there.”

Iowa defensive linemen A.J. Epenesa and Joe Evans had key sacks on Minnesota's final drive to save the Hawkeyes, 23-19.

The defense — and the roaring fans — delivered. 

The Hawkeye defensive line proved equally relentless. Back-to-back sacks from Joe Evans and A.J. Epenesa sent Minnesota backwards and knocked starting quarterback Tanner Morgan out of the game. Two plays later, Riley Moss' interception sealed the victory.

No. 22 Iowa 23, No. 7 Minnesota 19.

For the third November in the past four years, the Hawkeyes delivered some “Blackout” magic against a top-10 opponent.

“We practice for moments like this," said Epenesa, who had his best statistical game of the year with 2½ of Iowa’s six sacks. "I was telling the D-line before we headed on the field, ‘This is on us. It’s on the defense. This is what we want. ... This is a big-time moment. We’re big-time players, and we’re here to make plays."

Brian Ferentz deserves an 'A' for early short-yardage play-calling that helped send Iowa to a fast start.

Iowa won the coin toss and took the football, an early sign that the offense wanted to open with an aggressive mindset. That was obvious on the first play of the game, as Stanley uncorked a deep ball to Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who had a step or two on his defender. Stanley underthrew it, and the pass fell incomplete.

But the aggression continued.

“We were running and gunning," said Smith-Marsette, who caught one of two Stanley touchdown passes on a turnover-free night for the offense. "... We were literally running it or slinging it.

“Everybody was in sync. I feel like we could be literally unstoppable. I want that to happen every week. I feel like it should happen every week.”

On a third-and-2 from its own 30, Stanley faked a handoff to fullback Brady Ross and pitched left to Tyler Goodson, who had acres of running room in front of him. Rather than trying to grind out six feet of grass, the Hawkeyes went for the big play and gained 26 yards.

Then on a fourth-and-1 from Minnesota’s 32, Iowa didn’t settle for a long field goal. It emptied the backfield and put Stanley in shotgun. The quarterback zipped a strike to tight end Nate Wieting for 11 yards to move the chains. On the next play, Stanley hit Nico Ragaini for a 21-yard touchdown.

Later, Iowa gave the same look on a third-and-1 as it did on the early Goodson pitch. This time, Stanley plowed forward for a 4-yard sneak. Four plays later, Goodson raced into the end zone for a 10-yard score and 13-0 Hawkeye lead.

It was good to see tendency-breaking calls in short yardage, especially after going 1-for-9 on third downs last week at Wisconsin.

P.J. Fleck passionately defended his actions that got him an unsportsmanlike-conduct flag in a key moment.

A strange sequence toward the end of the third quarter saw Minnesota’s fiery coach sprinting toward a scrum of players near the north end zone, a bizarre scene that ultimately cost the Gophers 15 yards.

Fleck charged the field after Iowa freshman Dane Belton had delivered a late blow to Minnesota receiver Tyler Johnson, who dropped a fourth-down pass that would’ve been a first down.

Fleck said he raced onto the field because Johnson was motionless on the field, and he wanted to make sure his receiver was OK.

(Johnson was drilled pretty good but got up shortly after the hit). 

"They said I ran out there too fast. I’m 38 years old. I can run," Fleck said. "I’m going to make sure that I’m the first one they see, if I can, when they open their eyes.”

Fox Sports officiating analyst Mike Pereira explained that even though there were fouls on both teams, it would have been Iowa’s ball either way.  First, a half-the-distance walk-off for Belton’s foul; then 15 yards the other way for Fleck’s.

In a statement, Big Ten director of officials Bill Carollo affirmed that the game crew ruled properly. "The play is over the second the ball hits the ground as an incomplete pass," he said.

Fleck also said he would do the same thing over again and that he cost his team a win with his actions. I don't buy that he cost his team a win (Iowa ended up punting on its ensuing drive). But the Hawkeyes were able to move the ball the other way quickly, helping to chew up valuable clock and field position.

Johnson continued to play after Belton's hit. 

You can't question the Minnesota coach's passion, but it was misguided in this case. You can't run onto the field, especially in a one-score game between rivals.

Michael Ojemudia, a 19-game starting cornerback, was a surprise scratch Saturday.

The fifth-year senior was out with an injury he suffered against Wisconsin. So, for the second straight year, Ankeny native Riley Moss found himself in the Minnesota-game spotlight.

The sophomore got his seventh career start — and first this season — against the Gophers’ cluster of talented wide receivers. It was a year ago in Minneapolis that Moss got his first career start, and he delivered two interceptions in that 48-31 Hawkeye win.

Moss acquitted himself well in this one. A well-played breakup in the end zone on a deep ball to Chris Autman-Bell forced a Minnesota punt late in the first half. And then, as mentioned, he delivered the final punctuation with the game-clinching interception.

“I feel like I played good," Moss said. "I felt like the entire team played good.”

The Hawkeyes have finally found their starting offensive line.

There's no need to throw a parade after Iowa gained 290 total yards — including just 69 in the second half.

But, the revolving-door policy with so many early-season injuries has mostly stopped turning. Alaric Jackson, Landan Paulsen (with brief relief from Mark Kallenberger), Tyler Linderbaum, Kyler Schott and Tristan Wirfs went the distance, and the run-game showed some early teeth.

If Iowa wasn't able to run the ball as it did, the play-action passing wouldn't have been open. Ferentz said Jackson, who missed a month with a knee injury he suffered in Week 1, played his best game of the season at left tackle. 

"It's been a long road, as you know. It's affected us," Ferentz said. "... From where I was standing, seemed like we played more as a unit, more solidified (Saturday)."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.