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Leistikow's 5 thoughts: Kirk Ferentz sticks with Spencer Petras; Jack Campbell provides lift

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

MINNEAPOLIS — From the time Iowa took a 7-0 lead with 5 minutes, 42 seconds left in the first quarter until the end of the third quarter of Friday’s game at Minnesota, Spencer Petras attempted nine passes. He completed one to a Hawkeye (for 10 yards), one to a Gopher (a bad interception) and the other seven were incomplete.

It was ugly.

The Hawkeyes, as a result, squandered chances to build on a 14-0 lead and continued to lean on their defense to avoid blowing a double-digit lead for the second time in three weeks. If Kirk Ferentz had changed quarterbacks as that maddening stretch wore on, he would’ve had the support of a lot of frustrated Hawkeye fans watching the Fox Sports 1 broadcast. But even though the 22nd-year Iowa coach likes what he’s seen from backup quarterback Alex Padilla, he said he never considered making a change. In the fourth quarter, Petras and the Hawkeyes re-asserted control and finished off a 35-7 win.

“It’s just the way it is. With a new quarterback, there’s going to be some growing pains,” Ferentz said. “We all knew that. And I’ll remind everybody, it’s a new quarterback without the luxury of a spring practice, which is huge.”

More:Hawkeyes have no trouble shredding Gophers, winning sixth consecutive rivalry meeting

Leistikow:Kirk Ferentz throws shade at Minnesota, Hawkeyes show their swagger in 35-7 romp

Petras got lucky that his interception on a second-and-3, right into the arms of Minnesota linebacker James Gordon, wasn’t more costly. The Gophers committed two 15-yard penalties on that interception return, including an unsportsmanlike conduct on Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck — who for the second straight year against Iowa hurt his team by running onto the field.

Iowa also had first downs at Minnesota’s 36- and 26-yard lines late in the first half but came up empty.

“You’re going to make bad decisions,” said Petras, who finished 9-for-18 for 111 yards. “But just like our football team, we’re getting better week to week. And I think I’m doing the same thing.”

To Petras’ credit, he finished strong.

After that 1-for-9 stretch, he completed all three of his pass attempts in the fourth quarter. His best throw of the day was an 18-yard fastball to Tyrone Tracy Jr. on second-and-4 and Iowa (still) leading, 14-0. Two plays later, he connected with Smith-Marsette for an 8-yard touchdown and a 20-0 lead.

Handing the ball off to Tyler Goodson was often Spencer Petras' best move Friday night in Iowa's 35-7 victory at Minnesota.

And on the first play after Riley Moss’ interception, Petras hit Shaun Beyer for a 28-yard gain. That matched Petras’ second-longest completion of the young season, and it was the last pass he threw for the day. Whether it was intentional or not, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz was able to restore some of Petras’ confidence that was clearly lacking for parts of 2½ quarters.

Padilla needs to be at the ready. If the score was 14-14 instead of 14-0, maybe Ferentz would’ve been more inclined to make a change Friday. But Petras rewarded his coach's patience by closing out his first road win as Iowa’s starting quarterback. A trip to Penn State is next. No Iowa quarterback has won there since Ricky Stanzi in 2009.

“There’s no question about our confidence in Spencer,” Ferentz said, “and we feel the same way about Alex.”

With Iowa sputtering, complementary football saved the day.

Minnesota’s lengthy third-quarter drive had reached its 17th play, a third-and-6 from Iowa’s 20-yard line. Fleck thought he would run the ball, figuring it was probably four-down territory.

“We thought we'd be least be able to get half back (three yards), as we've run the ball on third down really well,” Fleck said. “And if not, set up a fourth and short.”

Niemann and Chauncey Golston had other ideas. They strung out Mo Ibrahim’s run for a loss of 1 yard, forcing a 39-yard field goal try which Jack Koerner blocked with his thumb. A 10-minute, 56-second drive came up empty.

“We were bleeding bad. The only good thing about that was that they took up basically the whole third quarter,” Golston said. “For them to have a drive that long and to come away with no points … we bend, and we didn’t break.”

Defense, special teams … and offense.

On the very next play, Goodson rocketed 45 yards on an outside-zone run that he cut up the middle of the field. Fullback Monte Pottebaum and center Tyler Linderbaum delivered punishing blocks to clear the way. Momentum, in a matter of three plays, had completely swung to the black and gold.

“We just had to stay on it,” Linderbaum said. “The O-line, we wanted to finish on our terms."

Suddenly, linebacker is a strength for the Hawkeyes.

Injuries and illnesses happen, of course, but it was a really rotten break that the Hawkeyes’ top two middle linebackers were unavailable for the season opener at Purdue. The loss of Jack Campbell that week was a particular surprise, as he had come down with mononucleosis. Campbell’s backup, Seth Benson, also was out due to COVID-19 protocols.

We can now see what a difference those two might’ve made against the Boilermakers, who probably don’t ride Zander Horvath's 129 rushing yards that Saturday if Campbell and/or Benson are healthy. On Friday, they were both available for the first time this year and it showed. Benson had seven tackles and Campbell logged five on a dominant day for the defense.

“Those guys just have a nose for the ball,” Koerner said. “It just makes playing defense a lot easier when you’ve got guys like that that’ll put their bodies on the line and do anything for the team and get a tackle by any means.”

The plan for Friday’s game was to rotate every two series, with Campbell still working to regain his conditioning. It’ll be interesting to see how Iowa proceeds next week at Penn State. My guess is Campbell will assert himself as the regular starter soon; and that’s nothing against Benson, who has been impressive. With weak-side starter Niemann being a fifth-year senior, there might be a place for both of them in the 2021 starting lineup.

“I felt good. I felt completely normal,” Campbell said. “I just had to go out there and give it my all. Coach (Phil) Parker and Coach (Seth) Wallace and Coach (Kelvin) Bell, it just seemed like they had the defense in the right place the whole game.”

Jack Campbell, right, showed a combination of power and closing speed throughout Friday's game.

The win puts the 2-2 Hawkeyes in fourth place in the Big Ten West at the halfway mark.

And the next three games are against teams that were winless entering Saturday — Penn State (0-3), Nebraska (0-2) and Illinois (0-3). So, there’s an opportunity for the Hawkeyes to string together a pretty solid season after their disappointing 0-2 start.

Iowa’s six-game winning streak in the battle for Floyd of Rosedale solidified continued ownership of three teams in the West. The Hawkeyes are 16-0 against Minnesota, Illinois and Nebraska over the past five-plus years. However, they have struggled against the other three West teams of late. They’ve lost three of four against Purdue; four of five against Northwestern; and four in a row against Wisconsin.

A flurry of finishing thoughts …

Despite running 20 few plays and having 13 fewer minutes of possession time, Iowa outgained Minnesota, 346 yards to 312. The Hawkeyes’ defense through four games is allowing 4.22 yards per play, best among Power Five programs entering Saturday. That’s an astounding pace, considering the 2019 defense (which finished five nationally in points allowed) yielded 4.80 per play. The only defense in recent memory to approach the current pace was in 2009 (4.26 per play) …

Iowa is averaging 5.43 yards per carry, another impressive figure since it hasn’t even reached the 4.0 mark in any of the past three seasons. The Hawkeyes’ 235 rushing yards Friday were their most in a Big Ten game since gaining 266 against Nebraska in 2018 …

Defensive tackle Jack Heflin left Friday's game with an arm injury, but sideline reporter Rob Brooks indicated he could have returned if Iowa wasn’t so far ahead in the fourth quarter. Heflin has been terrific; losing him would be a big blow. Austin Schulte got a handful of snaps in his first action at defensive tackle this season. Defensive end John Waggoner did not make the trip and is likely to miss two more games. …

Teams are continuing to test cornerback Riley Moss at their own peril. Moss' fourth-quarter interception (and 62-yard return) of Tanner Morgan was his fourth in three years against the Gophers. He intercepted Morgan on the final play of last year’s game and had two thefts in his first career start here as a true freshman in 2018. Iowa has recorded an interception in 11 straight games.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.