MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Fast starts?
How about a two-touchdown lead less than 10 minutes into your first road game of the season?
“We can be a dangerous team,” said wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, whose 60-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter Saturday marked Iowa’s longest play of the season.
How about beating a rival four consecutive times?
“As a senior, that’s something we’re extremely proud of. There’s a lot of guys saying that in there,” Hawkeye defensive end Parker Hesse said, motioning toward the visitors’ locker room.
Iowa’s wild and weird 48-31 victory over Minnesota before an announced crowd of 48,199 at TCF Bank Stadium was far from perfect. But it means another year of Iowa City residency for Floyd of Rosedale. And it means the Hawkeyes won’t start a second straight season 0-2 in Big Ten Conference play.
And that’s saying a lot.
“I thought the guys came out ready to go. That’s something we didn’t do so well earlier in the season,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said after his team improved to 4-1 overall and 1-1 in league play.
“We got beat by a much more mature football team,” was the assessment from Minnesota second-year coach P.J. Fleck.
True. But the Hawkeyes didn’t always show that maturity.
With a 14-0 lead after the defense forced back-to-back three-and-outs, the Hawkeyes were flagged for an illegal substitution on the Gophers’ third possession. That drive ended up becoming 75 yards and a touchdown for Minnesota (3-2, 0-2), which appeared to be on the verge of getting blown out.
A pair of Iowa turnovers set the Gophers up inside the Hawkeyes' 10-yard line. Minnesota happily turned both gifts into touchdowns to keep the game tight well into the fourth quarter.
“I’m a little frustrated, just because I don’t think we played as clean as we should have,” Hawkeye safety Jake Gervase said after Iowa allowed 234 passing yards.
Of course, the Hawkeyes also intercepted Minnesota freshman quarterback Zack Annexstad four times. They entered the game with two picks on the season.
Iowa sacked Annexstad five times five times and limited Minnesota to 3-of-13 on third- and fourth-down conversions
The Gophers had led the Big Ten in time of possession at an average of 35 minutes, 15 seconds per game. On Saturday, the Hawkeyes won that battle by keeping the football for 33:17. That was largely because Iowa converted 12 of its 21 third- and fourth-down opportunities, including a fake field goal that resulted in a second-quarter touchdown.
There was much to like about Iowa’s best scoring output of the season, and it started from the opening drive after the defense set up the offense at its 47-yard line. Ten plays later, Iowa found the end zone for the first time this season on its initial possession.
The next drive needed only three plays to cover 62 yards, thanks to quarterback Nate Stanley’s ability to avoid a sack and Smith-Marsette’s patience after finding an opening in the Minnesota defense. While Stanley ran toward the line of scrimmage, Smith-Marsette stood alone near his own sideline hoping that his quarterback spotted him.
Stanley did. Smith-Marsette gathered in the pass and then zeroed in on the goal line, some 25 yards distant.
“I was hoping Nate found me late or found me at all because I knew Cover-2 (defense) you’ve got a hole shot, and I just sat in my little area to wait and Nate found me,” Smith-Marsette said after his first touchdown of the season.
“I think they made the wrong call, because the safety never came over the top. He dropped down. The corner, he just stayed in the flat. He never got hands on. That was the result of them messing up, I guess. Touchdown.”
Smith-Marsette, who also had a 49-yard kickoff return to set up an Iowa touchdown, is the team’s fastest player. He thought as soon as he turned around that he had a shot at six points.
“What I saw was the safety hauling balls to come get me and I just put my speed into play and just took off. Once I got to the 20, I knew it was a touchdown,” Smith-Marsette said.
He completed the electrifying play with a flourish, somersaulting in the end zone. Smith-Marsette said it wasn’t a maneuver he had practiced.
“He grabbed my leg and I couldn’t land with both feet. So, to avoid any crazy falls or landings, I did a little front flip and you have yourself a touchdown,” he said.
Iowa had itself six touchdowns Saturday, by five different players. They got to fly home with a pig afterward. Earlier this season, the Hawkeyes beat Iowa State for a fourth year in a row. They’ll get the chance to do the same to Nebraska in the season finale.
“I definitely get a little juice out of winning a trophy game, because that trophy gets to stay in your building the whole year, and nobody can say anything about it,” Smith-Marsette said.