Iowa football instant analysis: Hawkeyes needed a win in the worst way. They got one.
The first few series of Iowa's road game at Northwestern looked like much of the same from the last few weeks.
Their first three offensive possessions netted 27 yards on 11 plays with three punts. Between both teams, the first six drives ended with punts and it appeared it'd be another chess match of defense and field positioning. Then toward the end of the first quarter, the Hawkeyes found a spark in backup quarterback Alex Padilla.
Starting quarterback Spencer Petras injured his shoulder last Saturday at Wisconsin. He tried to give it a go against Northwestern but it was apparent he could not effectively play the position.
Iowa's offense came alive. Padilla completed his first three attempts, two of them to freshman Keagan Johnson for 17 and 26 yards and it concluded with a Tyler Goodson 13-yard touchdown run. From there, Iowa held on in its 17-12 win on Saturday night.
Padilla played admirably in his first significant appearance (18-for-28 for 172 yards) but this game went beyond a quarterback change.
More:Leistikow's thoughts: Alex Padilla provides spark Iowa's offense needed in 17-12 win vs. Northwestern
From the beginning of the season, even after then-big time wins over Indiana, Iowa State and Penn State, the Hawkeyes goal remained the same: Play relevant football in November and December. Two consecutive bad losses put that goal in jeopardy. Iowa entered Evanston badly needing a win and left with just that.
In a statement November game, the Hawkeyes delivered and have firmly placed themselves in the middle of the wild, wild Big Ten West race.
Iowa's biggest letdown on offense this year has been the lack of a consistent rushing attack. Northwestern entered the game with the Big Ten's worst rushing defense setting the stage for a breakout Goodson game.
The All- Big Ten selection finished with 21 rushes for 141 yards and one touchdown. Behind him redshirt freshman Gavin Williams performed well in place of injured senior Ivory Kelly-Martin with 41 yards on 10 carries.
Their success on the ground allowed for success in the play-action pass game for Padilla, a facet of Iowa's game that's been largely nonexistent this year.
In addition, several receivers made their presence felt. Four Hawkeye receivers: Arland Bruce IV, Keagan Johnson, Charlie Jones and Tyrone Tracy Jr. caught a pass of double-digit yardage.
In total, six different pass catch options, including Goodson and tight end Sam LaPorta, caught multiple passes.
The most encouraging part: Receivers were utilized in creative ways, most notably Bruce, who took an end-around handoff for a touchdown in the second quarter, and Jones, who took a similar handoff in the third quarter for a first down on a drive that resulted in a field goal.
Defensively, the Iowa defense returned to the standard, limiting Northwestern's offense to 93 rushing yards and forced three turnovers — including the game-sealing pick by Dane Belton.
The defensive line re-emerged, a welcomed sight to defensive coordinator Phil Parker. Their two sacks don't tell the whole story: Lukas Van Ness forced an intentional grounding penalty early in the game and Joe Evans had several quarterback hurries throughout.
Most importantly, the turnover drought came to an end. Belton intercepted a Northwestern pass in the second quarter, Iowa's first turnover forced since Penn State on Oct. 9. The next possession resulted in a 9-play, 83-yard drive engineered by Padilla and concluding with Bruce's touchdown.
Team football returned on Saturday night.
Iowa entered the game a heavy 12-point favorite but this win will go far for their confidence moving forward. The 17 points by the offense remains a concern, but the Hawkeyes tallied more than 350 yards.
Perhaps the most confidence-deprived unit: the offensive line should feel good about their performance. Even though starting left tackle Mason Richman went down to injury the line had one of its better games.
Iowa's win creates a four-way tie for first place in the Big Ten West with Minnesota, Purdue and Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes need help: One more loss by both Purdue and Wisconsin. Purdue still has Ohio State on their schedule, while they'll have to hope Wisconsin stumbles against an underdog team along the way.
What Iowa can do to help their own chances? Win out, including defeating Minnesota at home next Saturday.
Division implications and a trophy game?
That's the relevant November football Iowa hoped for.
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com.