Leistikow's thoughts: Alex Padilla provides spark Iowa's offense needed in 17-12 win vs. Northwestern

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

EVANSTON, Ill. — With 2 minutes, 16 seconds left in the first quarter, Iowa could wait no longer. With the offense struggling mightily against Northwestern and Spencer Petras clearly not 100%, Kirk Ferentz did something that he rarely has done in 23 years as head coach.

He gave the keys to a new quarterback.

Alex Padilla, a redshirt sophomore who has been Iowa’s No. 2 for nearly two full seasons, was thrust into his first significant moments as a Hawkeye in a 0-0 game after the teams traded seven punts in less than 13 minutes. Padilla provided the spark Iowa’s offense desperately needed — leading touchdown drives on his first two possessions at the helm — in what would become a 17-12 win under the lights at Ryan Field.

Padilla completed 18 of 28 passes for 172 yards in relief of Petras as the 16th-ranked Hawkeyes improved to 7-2 overall and 4-2 in conference play. They are in a four-way tie with Minnesota, Purdue and Wisconsin for the top of the Big Ten West. 

Alex Padilla completed 18 of 28 passes in his first extended action as Iowa's quarterback.

Before we get into Padilla’s difference-making moments, it’s worth pointing out what led to the change.

No. 1, Petras took a big shot the week before at Wisconsin. He tried to go Saturday with a bad shoulder and couldn’t do much, going 2-for-4 for 4 yards on three possessions.

“He made good progress during the week. We were all confident he’d be able to go today," Ferentz said. "I don’t think it’s anything major, just something you’ve got to work through. Hopefully Monday or Tuesday, he’ll be back full speed."

No. 2, here were Iowa’s numbers on 30 possessions since Petras’ terrific 43-yard touchdown pass to Nico Ragaini for the winning points vs. then-No. 4 Penn State on Oct. 9: 14 points vs. 15 punts; just 27 first downs; a meager 3.31 yards per play on 135 snaps; four interceptions thrown; two lost fumbles; one missed field goal; and four turnovers on downs. The numbers and situation were simply too bad to ignore or stomach anymore.

So, enter Padilla.

“It was kind of out the blue. Kind of a surprise to me," said Padilla, who first heard he was going in through the headset he wears as the backup quarterback. "No time to think about (it). Just had to go out and do what the team needed.”

The redshirt sophomore from Colorado zipped a 17-yard strike to Keagan Johnson on his second snap, then a 26-yarder to Johnson on his fourth. Six snaps into what looks like the Padilla era at Iowa, Tyler Goodson was romping into the end zone from 13 yards out for a 7-0 Iowa lead.

The score was Goodson's first in 94 carries, the longest touchdown drought of his three-year starting career. That goes to show how much of a struggle it had been for Iowa's offense as a whole. 

And how unprecedented was the change? Ferentz hadn't voluntarily juggled quarterbacks in meaningful moments since Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard alternated series in the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl. 

“I was really pleased and really proud of the way (Padilla) prepared during the week," Ferentz said. "Did a good job there, and certainly thought he did a lot of good things on the field tonight."

So, what changed with Padilla in charge?

Iowa gained 361 yards, its highest total since Oct. 1 against Maryland. 

We saw a heavy dose of Johnson, the true freshman. Johnson collected four first-half catches for 61 yards and was the target of a deep shot early in the third quarter that drew a pass-interference flag. Johnson is quickly becoming one of Iowa’s best playmakers.

We saw a lot of zip on the football. Padilla was touted as a more mobile option than Petras, and he is. But Padilla’s priority was throwing the football, not using his legs. A bevy of screens and quick balls over the middle were called in the playbook. He hit Goodson for 19 yards on a third-and-7 strike; then Johnson on a tunnel screen for 8. Arland Bruce IV capped that nine-play, 83-yard drive with a second-effort, 10-yard touchdown run on a jet sweep. That put Iowa in front, 14-0.

“To be able to see Keagan and AB as first-year players and produce the way they produce is amazing to see," said Goodson, who lauded both true freshmen for their diligent work in practice.

We also saw more targets for Tyrone Tracy Jr.; four in the first half alone (two were caught for 17 yards, finally pushing him over 100 yards receiving for the season).

Play-action passes were Padilla’s friend. They helped hold back the pass rush that has been crushing Iowa in the previous two games in losses to Purdue and Wisconsin.

Prior to Saturday's game, Padilla's career numbers were 5-for-16 for 73 yards, all in mop-up duty. Ferentz had said during the summer that he trusted Padilla to run the offense, but he never caught Petras — who technically improved to 13-4 as a starter — for first string.

Noah Shannon got the ball rolling for Iowa’s defense with a big first-quarter effort.

A less-discussed story recently has been the lack of pass pressure by Iowa’s defensive line. The Hawkeyes entered Saturday with just two sacks in their previous four games, with only one coming from a defensive lineman (Deontae Craig vs. Penn State).

Shannon changed that with a big sack of Andrew Marty on Northwestern’s second drive. The defensive tackle blew up a called screen pass, spinning Marty down for a 12-yard loss after the mobile Wildcat quarterback had burned Iowa for two first-down runs.

On the next series, Chicago-area product Lukas Van Ness knifed through Northwestern’s offensive line to deliver a drive-killing sack of his own.

With Iowa’s offense struggling badly out of the gate, the defensive line offered some help. An argument could be made that the D-line was responsible for keeping this a 0-0 game until Iowa made the quarterback change.

“Like with the turnovers, it’s just little details, things like that," Iowa defensive end Zach VanValkenburg said. "We were able to get there a little more tonight.”

Then, after Iowa took a 7-0 lead, Dane Belton delivered another much-needed play for the defense. The Hawkeye safety tracked down a deep shot by Marty and hauled the pass in for Iowa’s 17th interception of the season but first since Matt Hankins’ pick at the end of the Penn State game.

The defense (mostly) stood strong in the face of adversity.

With Iowa’s lead at a healthy 14-0 late in the first half, Tory Taylor had a punt blocked — a shocking development considering how good Iowa’s special teams have been — and Northwestern recovered at the Hawkeye 10-yard line. That was the first of two first-and-goal situations that Phil Parker’s defense escaped with allowing short Charlie Kubander field goals.

Then, with the Wildcats driving midway through the fourth quarter — with the help of an awful pass-interference call on Hankins on fourth down — Parker (visibly angry by the official's flag on Hankins) brought the blitz from Belton. The pressure was enough for Marty to throw the ball earlier than he wanted to, and Jermari Harris — starting in place of injured Riley Moss/Terry Roberts — collected his first career interception in the end zone for a touchback with 8:02 remaining.

It was a great moment for the Chicago native in his hometown and was the 18th interception of Iowa’s season. Harris became the 10th different Hawkeye with a pick this season.

That interception proved big, considering Evan Hull cut into the Hawkeye lead with a 31-yard touchdown catch with 2:21 remaining. Iowa was disciplined on the failed two-point try, a reverse pass. 

Belton would clinch the result with his interception of Marty with 1:44 to go. That was interception No. 19 for the Hawkeyes this season. Considering Iowa finished minus-3 in turnovers in back-to-back losses, finishing plus-3 in turnovers in Evanston was just what the Hawkeyes needed.

“It wasn’t quite relief. We knew we had to make a play. We knew the game was riding on us," Belton said. "We did what we were supposed to do. We put out the fire and ended the game.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.