Hawkeyes play fast and loose, derail Minnesota's dream season
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Tristan Wirfs isn’t sure why he did it, but he changed up his pregame routine Saturday.
Iowa’s star offensive tackle didn’t sit in his normal seat on the right side of the bus en route to Kinnick Stadium. He went left this time.
A fan of country music, Wirfs found a new song Friday night and listened to it on repeat: “Heartache Medication” by Jon Pardi.
Wirfs and the Hawkeyes then went out and handed a dose of heartache to the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who entered play undefeated and ranked seventh in the nation. Their dream season died in front of 67,518 fans, a couple thousand of whom stormed the field after Iowa’s 23-19 win.
That, too, took Wirfs by surprise.
“I remember turning around. I was holding the pig (the Floyd of Rosedale trophy). I see all these cell phones. I’m like, ‘Where did this come from?’” Wirfs said. “But it was fun.”
Fun was the theme of the week for No. 22 Iowa (7-3, 4-3 Big Ten Conference). Quarterback Nate Stanley stressed it to the offense, which was struggling in league play.
“We all came out and knew that playing tight wasn’t going to help us at all,” Stanley said. “Everybody was ready to go and playing loose, playing free.”
Stanley led the Hawkeyes to a touchdown on their first three drives. Minnesota (9-1, 6-1), which hadn’t trailed in a game since Oct. 5, was on its heels.
Iowa’s first score came on a 21-yard pass that wide receiver Nico Ragaini never expected. He was in the flat to Stanley’s right on a play in which the ball never comes his way. This time, it did. Ragaini gets razzed by his fellow wide receivers all the time about his inability to break tackles. This time, he did that, too. It was that kind of afternoon for the Hawkeyes.
“To be honest, usually I don’t get the ball on that play, so sometimes in practice I’m a little lazy. I don’t really run it hard," Ragaini said. "But today something told me to run it hard. I ran it hard and Stanley threw me the ball. So I’m pretty happy I went hard on that play.
“In the receiver room, everyone’s been making fun of me, saying I don’t break tackles or make moves. So I had it in my head today that I was going to break a tackle or make a little move. So when I saw the opportunity to get by the guy and score the touchdown, I knew I had to take it.”
Ragaini went to the sideline and made sure his teammates had seen what he did.
The good vibes were infectious. Tyler Goodson scored on a 10-yard run. Ihmir Smith-Marsette streaked across the end zone to grab a 5-yard touchdown pass.
“We were slinging it,” Smith-Marsette said. “That’s just what the tempo of the whole week was. Go out there, give it everything you’ve got, let loose, have fun. This game is meant to be played aggressively.”
Iowa built a 20-3 lead in the first half. The defense made it hold up. The Hawkeyes have won five consecutive games in this rivalry. The Gophers hadn’t been held below 28 points all season while getting off to their best start since 1904.
“We knew we were going to have to score points today. No mirage, the points they've scored, yards they've had,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Felt like we had to kind of lay it out there a little bit more.”
Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, winless against the Hawkeyes in three tries, felt his team played poorly one week after knocking off Penn State to start earning some national buzz.
“I don’t think we played particularly well on either side of the ball; offense, defense or special teams,” he said. “They have one of the best defenses in the country. But every time we took two steps forward, we took two steps back.”
Wirfs, a junior from nearby Mount Vernon, said it was exhilarating to knock the Gophers off their course. But just beating a ranked team for the first time in four tries this season was also satisfying.
“A win’s the No. 1 thing. Being a trophy game, even better,” Wirfs said. “And then ending their perfect season just adds to it.”
All the merriment on the Hawkeye sideline even spread to Stanley, a senior not known for his lightheartedness. Ferentz has suggested he needs to stop being so serious all the time.
Stanley was asked about a key eight-yard run he had late in the game, a nimble scramble that also seemed a little out of character. He credited his mother, Donita, for teaching that to him.
Reporters were curious. Stanley was asked to elaborate.
“Just joking around a little bit with that,” he said with a smile. “Just trying to have some fun.”
Next up for Iowa is its home finale Saturday vs. Illinois.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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