Leistikow's DVR Monday: Red-zone defense helps save Iowa's bacon vs. Minnesota

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Present Saturday’s statistical profile without the score, and Minnesota probably beats Iowa nine times out of 10? Maybe 19 out of 20?

The Golden Gophers ran 34 more plays than Iowa, had 13 more first downs, gained 136 more yards and controlled the football for 40-plus minutes out of 60.

The Hawkeyes’ 27-22 win at Kinnick Stadium still defies statistical logic, but this week’s video review starts by spotlighting one of the ways Iowa found a way.

Four red-zone stops (counting the failed two-point conversion) saved Iowa’s bacon.

While Iowa’s defense didn’t have a great day against the run (see next section), it held up when it counted most.

For the game, Minnesota gained 386 yards on 67 snaps “between the 20s” for a robust 5.8 per-play average.

But once it got inside Iowa’s 20-yard line? Not much. Save one 12-yard run in the first quarter, Minnesota’s other 10 red-zone plays (in order) gained 1, 2, 2, 0, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2 and 5 yards.

Let’s look at some key plays in each of Minnesota’s three red-zone trips that all resulted in short field goals.

Trip No. 1: On third-and-goal from the 3, Iowa defensive tackle Noah Shannon made a quietly significant play. As Minnesota’s Blaise Andres was trying to seal off the running lane for Kai Thomas, Shannon knocked the 335-pound right guard backward. Huge. Thomas had a nice seam but slammed into Andres’ backside. That stalled his momentum and Iowa brought him down just inside the 2-yard line. P.J. Fleck played it conservative and took the three points to make it a 3-3 score with 2:07 left in the first quarter.

Trip No. 2: After Nico Ragaini’s fumble late in the first half set up Minnesota in prime position, the Gophers reached Iowa’s 16-yard line with 56 seconds left and one timeout remaining. On a second-and-3, Minnesota tried a toss sweep left that had been so effective early against Iowa. This time, outside linebacker Jestin Jacobs shook off a block by 270-pound tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford to get a body on Mar’Keise Irving, and Dane Belton crashed from his strong safety spot to smash Irving for a 1-yard gain. That forced Minnesota to rush a third-and-2 call, and a quick run into the line was swallowed by Jack Campbell and Kaevon Merriweather. Fleck then played it conservative again, letting the clock go to 2 seconds before spending his final timeout.

That was a big sequence. Had Minnesota gained a first down on either run, the clock stops and it can take up to three end-zone shots with the ability to call timeout on the table. Instead, it settled for three. A 13-10 halftime deficit felt more manageable for Iowa than 17-10.

Trip No. 3: After consecutive short runs, Minnesota had a blitz-beating call on third-and-7 from Iowa’s 16. The three receivers to the left ran toward the end zone, clearing out the middle of the field for Spann-Ford, who blocked momentarily. But defensive coordinator Phil Parker didn’t call blitz, a decision that saved Iowa. Seth Benson was well-positioned to tackle Spann-Ford as he caught the ball for a 5-yard gain. On fourth-and-2, Fleck again played it safe and took the easy three points to cut Iowa's lead to 17-16.

For the game, Minnesota gained 28 yards on 11 red-zone plays. But there was one other snap inside the 20 — the two-point try to tie with 5:28 left.

Oh, what a biggie. After an Iowa timeout, Minnesota ran top receiver Chris Autman-Bell in motion from the left. Iowa cornerback Riley Moss flowed with him, signaling man-to-man coverage. At the snap, Moss deftly handed off Autman-Bell to Merriweather on his left. Though Autman-Bell was open briefly for an out route, Tanner Morgan’s rollout throw never had a chance. Belton blitzed into the backfield into the flat and jumped in the air to deflect the pass incomplete. Good call, good play, good defense.

Running back Mar'Keise Irving (4) rushed 17 times for 80 yards against Iowa. Here, Dane Belton (4) and Kaevon Merriweather, right, are in pursuit.

Iowa’s run defense was a step behind; will Illinois take note?

Minnesota gave Iowa’s next opponent, which also likes to run the football behind a veteran offensive line, some help with Saturday’s rushing performance. The Gophers’ were seemingly a step ahead of the Hawkeyes for the first three quarters.

The toss-sweep wrinkle that produced three double-digit gains on Minnesota’s second drive successfully spread out Iowa’s defense, and the running backs were able to quickly get the edge. Considering the Gophers’ gigantic offensive line was controlling Iowa’s undersized defensive line all game, it then became a game of making Hawkeye linebackers miss in open space. That was a tough ask for Iowa defenders all night.

Iowa’s counter was to return to its 4-3 personnel — with Jacobs on the field at linebacker, Belton at safety — on Minnesota first downs in an effort to push back on getting pushed around in the run game. But the Gophers made a few smart adjustments: 1) A quick throw to tight end Ko Kieft for 11 yards caught Jacobs off guard. 2) They began going with a more power handoffs up the middle, and Iowa’s defensive linemen were consistently washed out of the plays. There was one read-option play that Benson couldn’t see over the line and went in the opposite direction of the ball, vacating a hole for Thomas to gain an easy 11 yards.

Minnesota had 204 rushing yards through three quarters. Considering Illinois has proven capable in two road wins against good defenses (it rushed for 357 yards at Penn State and 185 at Minnesota), the Hawkeyes have some work to do in practice this week. And the Illini would be wise to mimic Minnesota's strategy.

What exactly happened on Iowa’s longest pass play in two years?

Padilla’s 72-yard touchdown pass to Charlie Jones in the third quarter was the moment that the feel of this game went from “totally dominated by Minnesota” to “hey, Iowa can win this thing.”

Lots of credit has gone to Jones’ double-move route that burned freshman cornerback Justin Walley. But let’s look at the other key elements of Iowa’s longest passing play since Nate Stanley hit Tyrone Tracy Jr. for 75 yards at Wisconsin on Nov. 9, 2019.

On this play, Iowa had a single-back set with No. 1 tight end Sam LaPorta on the left side of the line and No. 2 tight end Luke Lachey on the right. Keagan Johnson was wide left; Jones was wide right.

LaPorta and Lachey each ran 10-yard curls on first-and-10. Padilla looked right as Jones made his out cut, so Lachey drew most of the linebacker/safety attention. He had three Gophers around him, while Jones turned his route upfield behind them. He was wide open. Where was the help from safety Tyler Nubin? He was busy cheating toward the side of LaPorta and Johnson.

Left tackle Jack Plumb did a nice job steering his man behind Padilla, and left guard Kyler Schott was pushed back by defensive tackle Trill Carter but held him off long enough for Padilla to set his feet and release a perfect ball.

It was a good team execution on a perfect play call to turn the game's tide.

More:Iowa postgame mailbag: Were the Hawkeyes too conservative on final offensive possession?

What can be extracted from Padilla’s first start?

The strangeness of this game limited the total offensive data to 49 snaps, and three of those were dedicated to Kirk Ferentz’s strange clock-burning strategy with first-and-goal at Minnesota’s 3 late.

But here are a few observations that can be pulled out.

Johnson continues to be the featured receiver. We saw his role go way up at Northwestern (11 targets), and that continued Saturday. Johnson played 43 snaps; more than double any other Iowa wideout.  Ragaini played 20 snaps, Arland Bruce IV 19 and Jones and Tracy 16 apiece.

Johnson had the two drops and the amazing 27-yard touchdown on a busted screen. He also has a knack for drawing pass-interference flags. He got one on the drive that he finished with his TD.

Iowa threw frequently out of heavy personnel sets. Jones' 34-yard catch in the first half came with a fullback and two tight ends on the field on third-and-2. For the game, Iowa ran just 16 plays with three or more wide receivers. While Lachey didn't have a catch in this game, he played 30 snaps (just behind LaPorta's 36) and is earning an increased role.

Pass protection was good (no sacks). According to Pro Football Focus, Padilla was 9-for-15 for 100 yards when he was "kept clean" and 2-for-9 for 106 yards under pressure. He was blitzed only four times, thanks to a combination of play-action and rollout passes plus more heavy-personnel sets. 

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.