Leistikow's 5 Iowa football thoughts: Riley Moss, playing without PCL, would consider returning in 2022

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Spencer Lee wrestles without ACLs. So for Riley Moss, playing without a PCL in his left knee isn’t that big of a deal.

But doing so has been an adjustment. The Iowa senior cornerback — who was in the Jim Thorpe Award conversation before getting injured Oct. 9 — returned to action in Iowa’s 27-22 win against Minnesota and played 80-plus defensive snaps.

Moss, speaking Tuesday for the first time since the contact with the ground on his diving interception vs. Penn State completely tore his posterior cruciate ligament, said he isn’t 100%. He is learning how to operate with a leg brace made of titanium. Cuts he could perform before the injury aren’t quite the same now.

“No PCL. Definitely weird. It’s healed. I can play,” Moss said. “But it’s definitely not what it used to be.”

Moss said it’s a misconception for an observer to see a player return from injury and think he’s back to normal. In his case, he’s playing through pain by choice. It was hard for Moss to watch losses to Purdue and Wisconsin while he was out.

Iowa (8-2 overall, 5-2 Big Ten Conference) has a 7-0 record when Moss plays.

Iowa cornerback Riley Moss has played in 37 games as a Hawkeye, with 22 starts (including Saturday vs. Minnesota).

“It definitely takes a little bit of grit. But I love football enough. This could be my last hurrah,” Moss said. “I am more than willing to take the pain so I can be out there with my brothers.”

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

About that last hurrah … it is senior day for 16 Hawkeyes against Illinois (1 p.m., Fox Sports 1). Moss is among those who will walk to midfield and greet his parents before the game. But because last year’s COVID-19 season gave everyone a “free” year of eligibility, Moss has the option to return for a fifth year in 2022 — just as teammate Matt Hankins chose to do this season.

The PCL injury is less-than-ideal timing for Moss’ NFL hopes. Time is needed for the knee to fully heal. The knee won’t need surgery, but it’s unclear when Moss — a high school track star and one of Iowa’s fastest players — will be able to run at top speed.

It goes without saying that Iowa’s 2022 football team would be a lot better if Moss returns. His four interceptions still lead the Big Ten; he has 10 for his career.

“I came into the season open-minded, and I’m staying open-minded until the end of the season,” Moss said. “I’m excited for senior day and mentally prepared for it to be my last time. But if it isn’t, it isn’t, and I’ll get another shot. At the end of the season, I’ll get a feeling of if I’m going to go or stay."

Spencer Petras is running the No. 2 offense in practice this week.

The right (throwing) shoulder of the Hawkeyes’ former starting quarterback has improved. Head coach Kirk Ferentz reported two good days of practice for Petras and clarified that he’s running the No. 2 offense while Alex Padilla is running the first-team offense.

Padilla is on track to start Saturday’s game, but it’s good news that Petras could be the backup if needed against the Illini. He’s got 17 games of starting experience (13 wins) in his arsenal. Deuce Hogan, who got the No. 2 reps last week, slides back to No. 3.

“He’s getting a lot of work. Looks good,” Ferentz said of Petras. “The key thing (is) he wasn’t sore today.”

Petras didn’t even attempt a pass during pregame warmups vs. Minnesota but was in uniform. It sounds like he is throwing with more strength this week, but Ferentz reported some rust from the redshirt junior.

“Timing and accuracy are probably the biggest thing(s) he’s got to get back,” Ferentz said. “A week ago, he couldn’t throw the ball down the field.”

Someone half-jokingly suggested to me that Petras should be the designated QB sneaker this week against Illinois. Not a bad thought, considering Petras’ success on that play, but the last thing Iowa coaches would want to do is see him aggravate that shoulder and have another setback.

More:Leistikow: A successful first start for Alex Padilla and ... the big-play Hawkeyes?

Tyler Linderbaum won’t be participating in senior day, but don’t read too much into that.

Yes, he’s a senior academically. But in football, Linderbaum is a redshirt junior.

Asked why he isn’t walking Saturday, he responded, “I’m a junior.”

Linderbaum already has been through the stay-or-go process once. The all-America center probably could’ve been a second-round NFL Draft pick after his third season at Iowa but chose to return to play for the team he has cheered for since an early age.

The Solon native deflected the idea that he will soak in Saturday’s festivities in case it’s his last game as a player in Kinnick Stadium. If he goes to the NFL, Linderbaum is widely projected to be a first-round pick. He’s universally considered the best center in college football.

“I’ll worry about that toward the end of the year, after the season’s done,” Linderbaum said. “Right now, I’m going to focus on these guys and what I can do to help them win.”

More:Iowa football holds steady at No. 14 in latest USA TODAY Coaches Poll

How good would it be for the 2022 Hawkeyes if Charlie Jones returned?

Very good. (Obviously.)

The high-octane kickoff and punt returner for the Hawkeyes is also participating in senior day, but the former walk-on has talked with Iowa coaches about a possible return for a sixth season.

Jones leads the Big Ten Conference in punt returns (10.4 per runback) and has more kick return yards (436) than anyone else in the league (23.0 average). He is also coming off his first career 100-yard receiving game, highlighted by a 72-yard touchdown catch vs. the Gophers.

Jones sat out the 2019 season after transferring from Buffalo. He is on track to graduate this spring.

“We’ve had some conversations,” Jones said. “I told (coaches) I’m focusing on finishing out this season and doing everything I can for this year. Whatever happens, happens.

“Obviously I want to have as much film as I possibly can, be out there as much as I possibly can.”

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The list of 16 seniors Iowa will honor Saturday: specialists Ryan Gersonde, Caleb Shudak and Austin Spiewak; offensive linemen Luke Empen and Kyler Schott; walk-on tight ends Tommy Kujawa and Bryce Schulte; receivers Jones and Max Cooper; running back Ivory Kelly-Martin; defensive end Zach VanValkenburg; and defensive backs Moss, Hankins, Jack Koerner, Henry Marchese and Xavior Williams.

Schott, a starting left guard, said his plan was to be done after this year but would listen to coaches if they wanted to have a conversation about returning.

“It’s very physically demanding,” Schott said of the Iowa program. “To put my body through another (year) when I’ve already had injuries in my time here, it’d be tough to do for sure.”

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

The 49 offensive snaps vs. Minnesota were the fewest in Iowa’s last 53 games.

The oddities of Saturday’s 27-22 victory against the Gophers continue to pour in. Even in the low offensive point of the Ferentz era — the 66-yard game vs. Wisconsin in 2017 — Iowa managed to run 50 plays.

“It was kind of a weird game, that’s for sure," Linderbaum said. "But it comes down to who makes the most plays and who scores the most points. … When you’re playing good team football like that, it’s tough to beat a good Iowa football team.”

The last time Iowa ran fewer plays? In an equally odd game on Sept. 23, 2017, against Penn State. The Hawkeyes gained 273 yards on just 45 plays in a heartbreaking 21-19 loss. In that game, Saquon Barkley-led Penn State ran 99 plays and gained 579 yards yet trailed,19-15, until the final fourth-and-goal play from Iowa’s 7. Josey Jewell had 16 tackles that day; middle linebacker Jack Campbell had 17 tackles Saturday vs. Minnesota.

And get this: The last time Iowa won a game by the unusual 27-22 score was only 32 games ago, in the 2019 Outback Bowl vs. Mississippi State. In that contest against a stingy Bulldogs defense, Iowa ran only 51 plays and gained 199 yards. If you recall, 75 of them came on a long touchdown pass to Nick Easley.

Against Minnesota, Iowa had a 72-yard touchdown pass to Jones.

In the 2019 Outback Bowl, Iowa tacked on a late Miguel Recinos field goal to make it 27-22. Mississippi State drove to the Hawkeyes’ 37-yard line in the final seconds before fizzling.

Against Minnesota, Shudak’s field goal with 41 seconds left gave Iowa a 27-22 lead. Minnesota drove to Iowa’s 39-yard line in the final seconds before a last-play sack by Joe Evans.

Just another example that if you hang around Ferentz-era football long enough, history tends to repeat itself. Even in strange ways.

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.