Leistikow's 6 thoughts after Iowa football's 27-22 win against Minnesota

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Back on Big Ten Media Days in July, P.J. Fleck was asked by a reporter what the most difficult environment he’s competed in as a player or coach.

The Minnesota head coach’s answer in six words?

"The University of Iowa at night."

While Saturday’s Iowa-Minnesota game kicked off at 2:40 p.m., the second half was played under dark skies, “Blackout” crowd conditions and the typical Kinnick Stadium night-game feel. It turned out to be Fleck’s worst Iowa-Minnesota nightmare, as his team outplayed the Hawkeyes for much of the game. Yet Iowa hoisted Floyd of Rosedale for the seventh consecutive year.

Finding an explanation for Iowa’s 27-22 victory against the Gophers can start with some Kinnick magic. It seemed like the game was stacking against the Hawkeyes as Minnesota churned past the 200-yard rushing mark in the third quarter against the normally stingy Iowa defense.

Then when Keagan Johnson spun out of a dead-in-the-water wide-receiver screen, kept his footing and raced 27 yards for a thrilling touchdown early in the fourth quarter, it felt like this was somehow going to end up being Iowa’s night.

Johnson’s catch on a wide receiver screen should've lost 3 or 4 yards. It could be argued that he would've been better off letting the ball fall incomplete. He was crunched by two Gopher defenders as the ball arrived, but he popped out of the grip of 250-pound defensive lineman Thomas Rush and 200-pound defensive back Coney Durr and turned up the left sideline. It was somewhat reminiscent of a big catch-and-run against Penn State in the fourth quarter of Iowa's Oct. 9 win; except this time, Johnson scored to give Iowa a 24-16 lead with 12 minutes, 49 seconds remaining.

"When I caught the ball I saw two people in my face. I was thinking in my head, 'Stay up,'" Johnson said. "I did stay up and I saw green grass, and I just ran as fast as I could." 

Of course, Iowa (8-2 overall, 5-2 in the Big Ten) never makes things easy on its fans. A 68-yard touchdown reception by Chris Autman-Bell with 5:28 to play cut the lead to 24-22. A failed two-point conversion on a Tanner Morgan rollout pass proved to be one of the game's biggest plays. That triggered thoughts of the Hawkeyes' failed two-point conversion miss at Wisconsin in 2019 in a game that they lost, 24-22.

This one had to be equally agonizing for the Gophers, who held the ball for 40 minutes, 19 seconds to Iowa's 19:41.

After the Hawkeyes punted to Minnesota and got a stop at the Gophers' 3, head coach Kirk Ferentz elected to run three safe plays and settle for Caleb Shudak's 29-yard field goal pushed the lead to five with 41 seconds left. Minnesota's last-gasp attempts came up short, punctuated by Joe Evans' sack of Morgan to end the game.

After Saturday, the Hawkeyes' Big Ten West Division hopes are alive. Iowa will likely need to win out and get help from this Minnesota team (6-4, 4-3) in the regular-season finale against Wisconsin (7-3, 5-2) to head to Indianapolis. The Badgers and Hawkeyes are in a first-place tie with two games to go, but Wisconsin owns the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of the Oct. 30 win in Madison.

For the game, Minnesota ran 83 plays and gained 409 yards. Iowa was minus-1 in turnovers and ran 49 plays and gained 277 yards. Go figure.

Ferentz defended Iowa’s decision to burn clock with a 24-22 lead.

After Iowa took over at Minnesota’s 3-yard line after a fourth-down stop with 2:18 left, the Hawkeyes decided their best strategy would be to try not to score. At least not right away.

Minnesota had one timeout remaining. Iowa’s first play had quarterback Alex Padilla essentially burrow into the pile for no gain. The clock kept running. After milking every second and an Iowa timeout, Padilla pushed ahead for 1 yard on second down to the Minnesota 2. The Gophers called their last timeout with 1:30 left.

On third down, a run left to Tyler Goodson was blown up and lost 4 yards. On that play, Ferentz indicated, Iowa was actually trying to score. After that, Iowa took a delay-of-game penalty that brought the clock to 44 seconds. At that point, rather than go for a touchdown, Iowa allowed Shudak to kick the field goal.

That left Minnesota 41 seconds and a five-point deficit. The Gophers reached Iowa's 39 with 12 seconds left and had a Hail Mary shot. But Evans' sack ended it.

In Ferentz’s mind, trying to score and go up nine was riskier because it would’ve left Minnesota more than 2 minutes on the clock. And he doesn’t like onside kicks, perhaps understandably after 23 years of scar tissue (Northwestern 2005 and Central Michigan 2012 come to mind).

“There are two ways to go. You just try to go score right now, which I think (Minnesota) would’ve been happy with,” Ferentz said. “The other thing, we wanted to burn a little clock. It’s five points or it’s whatever it would’ve been. I felt like our defense would be OK with the time that they got back.”

My 2 cents: Iowa was overthinking it too much and got too cute. Run the ball with the intent to score, trusting your offense to get into the end zone from the 3-yard line for a nine-point lead (31-22, with the PAT). If you don’t make it, you’ve still burned the same amount of clock if not more.

A two-score lead with 2 minutes in the hands of Iowa’s defense is better than a one-score lead with 41 seconds left.

Ferentz was just glad to talk about the second-guessing after a win.

More:No. 14 Iowa 27, Minnesota 22: Hawkeyes edge Golden Gophers to keep the Floyd of Rosedale

Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz was aggressive with Padilla.

The Hawkeyes tried two deep shots to Johnson in the first half. Both failed, with the first try slightly overthrown and the second well-covered on a Johnson double move.

The next two deep shots worked beautifully.

Charlie Jones, take 1: Jones had Iowa’s top highlight of the first half with a diving 34-yard catch on a third-and-2 call from Minnesota’s 39. From a heavy personnel package with Jones as the only receiver, the fifth-year senior laid out to make a diving catch while not allowing the football to touch the turf, giving Iowa first-and-goal at the Gophers’ 5.

Two plays later, Padilla snuck into the end zone from 1 yard out to give Iowa a 10-3 lead with 13:32 left in the first half.

Iowa’s next three drives went three-and-out, fumble, three-and out. And it was 13-10 Minnesota early in the third quarter. Then?

Charlie Jones, take 2: A deft double-move on freshman cornerback Justin Walley worked like you’d draw it up. Jones faked his route to the outside, then ran a post route up field. Padilla threw a perfect deep shot. Jones made the catch in stride and sped into the end zone for a 72-yard touchdown and a 17-13 Iowa lead. That was a one-play, 11-second scoring drive and gave Jones his first career 100-yard receiving game

“Whenever the opportunity comes, we will take advantage of it," Jones said. "We knew that this was going to be a game where they were going to run the clock, because that’s the way they play. So, we needed to be ready to take the chance when the opportunity came."

The deep shots continued late. Even with Iowa's lead 24-22, Padilla took a deep crack to Arland Bruce IV with 3:36 to go from his own 35. The throw was good but hit the defender’s back and fell incomplete near the Gophers' 20.

For the game, Padilla finished 11-for-24 for 206 yards. He threw for two touchdowns, rushed for one and committed no turnovers. Iowa's lone turnover was a fumble by receiver Nico Ragaini in the second quarter. 

More:Iowa football instant analysis: Strong fourth quarter keeps Hawkeyes' division title hopes alive

Iowa’s defense had some tough looks but finished strong.

Two Minnesota wrinkles in the first half caught Iowa’s well-schooled defenders off guard.

On the Gophers’ second drive, after the Hawkeyes had taken a 3-0 lead, a shotgun toss sweep often aimed toward Iowa weak-side linebacker Seth Benson was very well-blocked and productive.

Freshman Mar’Keise Irving reeled off runs of 16 and 13 yards, a somewhat jarring development considering the Gophers’ longest run over the past four years of the Fleck era was 18 yards (once, in 2019). The backs would take a lateral pitch and run outside before cutting up the field with open space. Ky Thomas followed on that drive with an 11-yarder on the same concept.

“The facts are, they had their way with us in the first half. They were really working us. They did some things schematically that they don’t normally do, or at least don’t feature," Ferentz said. "They clearly had a really good plan there, and it took us a while to adjust to that. Not only schematically, but we weren’t playing those blocks very well.”

Added Iowa defensive end Zach VanValkenburg, who finished with 10 tackles and a big sack with 2:24 to go. "That toss was kind of their wrinkle. You have to play one or the other, so we just had to switch a few things in the back end, and it worked out.”

In the first half alone, the Gophers gained 139 rushing yards on 29 carries — and those runs were a big wrinkle why. They had 204 rushing yards through three quarters but had minus-15 (with sacks) in the fourth. Thomas had 126 yards on 29 carries; Irving had 80 on 17. Iowa didn't have its first tackle for loss until the final play of the third quarter.

Keagan Johnson scored on this miraculous 27-yard play in the fourth quarter.

The defense had coverage boo-boos on both Minnesota touchdowns.

Facing a 10-3 deficit and a fourth-and-2 from Iowa’s 37-yard line in the second quarter, Minnesota went for it. Iowa defenders were stacked against a heavy set with Wildcat quarterback Cole Kramer in the game. Some Hawkeyes were pointing at the right side of Minnesota’s line as if they sensed something was up or they were confused.

As it turned out, something was up. Super-sized tight end Ko Kieft — who had 10 career catches over four seasons before Saturday — leaked into the Iowa secondary and was all alone. Kramer hit him for what became a 37-yard touchdown, upheld by a video review after a valiant effort by Matt Hankins to force a fumble as Kieft crossed the goal line.

Kieft is a 6-foot-5, 265-pound native of Sioux Center, Iowa. Fleck made note of enjoying that fact during a halftime interview.

“They went to cover 0 (man-to-man),” Fleck said, “and we knew they were going to put a lot of people in the box.”

Hankins was later beat on Autman-Bell's 68-yard touchdown catch.

Yet, again speaking to the strangeness of the game, Iowa defenders said they felt stronger down the stretch despite playing 83 snaps. 

"Looking back, we've got to get off the field quicker than that," said Jack Campbell, who had 17 tackles. "But it says a lot about the guys in that room. We fought for those 40 minutes we were on the field. We didn't give them anything easy."

More:Yes, Iowa football and Minnesota play for a pig. Here's what to know about Floyd of Rosedale history

'It was a really good day' for the offensive line

That was Ferentz's assessment after the game.

The starting five played the whole game for the first time this season: Jack Plumb, Kyler Schott, Tyler Linderbaum, Connor Colby and Nick DeJong were Iowa's five on Saturday.

"I came off the field Wednesday feeling good about the way we had practiced for three straight days," Ferentz said of his embattled line. "... I just felt like our guys were gaining ground.

"We can't practice in pads as much as you would like this time of year. It just isn't realistic. I was hoping that would show up today, and I think it did. I think they competed hard."

It's possible that left tackle Mason Richman returns from a leg injury next week, which would help even more.

A few more shout-outs

After a rough start to the game, Iowa punter Tory Taylor came up big late. He delivered a 51-yard punt that was downed at Minnesota's 10-yard line with Iowa's lead whittled to 24-22. That set up the final, game-clinching sequences. ... Even though Iowa's defense didn't create a turnover officially, Logan Lee's blocked field goal to start the fourth quarter was a huge momentum-swinger. That gave Iowa the ball at its own 42-yard line and set up Johnson's touchdown catch.

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.