Iowa postgame mailbag: Are the Hawkeyes really one win from the Big Ten Championship Game?

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

For the majority of the fourth quarter in Saturday's game at Minnesota, it appeared that Iowa's improbable run to the Big Ten West title would come up a tad short.

The Golden Gophers possessed the ball for over 11 minutes, outgained the Hawkeyes by a 119-41 margin and twice were well within scoring distance to break the 10-10 tie. But then Iowa's defense turned the game on its head with two late-game turnovers, and the offense capitalized to give the team its fourth straight win, 13-10, and position it nicely for a Big Ten title-game berth.

"It was tough to watch (Minnesota's offense) on the bench," said tight end Luke Lachey. "But we just had to stay ready. The defense made two great plays and a bunch before then, they stepped up when we really needed them to and we just have to stay ready in those situations."

The second of those big plays, Jack Campbell's interception, set up Iowa's offense for the game-winning drive and Drew Stevens field goal with 28 seconds left. Now, Iowa's just one win away from the Big Ten Championship Game for the second consecutive season. Saturday's game played out much like Iowa's late-season run in that statistically, it didn't make sense. Probability said the chances were slim to none, but the Hawkeyes found a way.

More:Iowa football's late-game win over rival Minnesota sets the stage for division title game next Friday

That brings us to this week's mailbag and a question before the actual questions...


Not only Saturday's game, but the whole four-game winning streak. It sounds cliché, but Iowa's players say they just didn't give up.

"People wanted to cancel our season," said linebacker Seth Benson. "People didn’t want us to play another game. But we believed in ourselves. We never quit. You’ve just got to keep fighting when no one believes you.”

Any Hawkeye fans who were off the bandwagon are firmly back on as Iowa enters its annual short game week against Nebraska. After losing the Cy-Hawk trophy early in the season, the Hawkeyes have a chance to collect up to four of them in a span of 14 days: Heartland (Wisconsin), Floyd of Rosedale (Minnesota), Heroes (Nebraska) and most importantly the Big Ten West Division title.

More:Leistikow's 4 thoughts after Iowa's improbable 13-10 win at Minnesota: One more for Indy

Let's get into this week's questions:

Any update on Sam LaPorta?

One of the biggest turning points in Saturday's game was tight end Sam LaPorta leaving in the first quarter to a leg injury. He recorded 95 yards in just two drives. After his departure, Iowa only accounted for 186 yards for the remainder of the game. It was a huge loss Saturday and any lingering effects will loom large. Here was the postgame update from head coach Kirk Ferentz:

"We'll probably know more here in the next couple of days," Ferentz said. "It was enough to keep him out and he couldn't go back in, the same thing with (starting fullback Monte Pottebaum). So that made it tougher because that's two of our top guys offensively and great leaders."

The uncertainty of LaPorta's status, in addition to Pottebaum, will be a big talking point in the short week ahead. I'll have more on Iowa's tight end room in the next few days, but Hawkeye fans should feel encouraged about the fact that sophomore Lachey had a career day in LaPorta's absence (five catches for 77 yards) and true freshman Addison Ostrenga held his own playing significant snaps for the first time in his career.

How does a defense give up over 300 rushing yards but only 10 points?

Safety Kaevon Merriweather was asked this same question after the game, and he couldn't fathom it either.

"I don't even know," Merriweather said. "From a rush defense standpoint, it was probably one of our worst performances of the year."

Gophers running back Mo Ibrahim accounted for 263 rushing yards alone. Iowa's No. 1 priority on defense was stopping him, but he gave the Hawkeyes trouble throughout the game with a 6.7 yards per rush average on 39 carries. However, the Iowa defense epitomized "bend but don't break." In the first half, Ibrahim broke a long run that put the Gophers in the Iowa red zone, but the defense didn't concede any further and forced a field goal attempt that missed. Then in the fourth quarter, with their backs against the wall on consecutive drives, two forced turnovers made the difference.

Campbell gets the credit for the two plays made on the field, but Benson also revealed that Campbell had another signature moment with a rallying message to the defense during a TV timeout.

"He said you dream of these moments when you're a kid," Benson said. “And that's really true, tight ballgame, Big Ten football in November and it's us versus them. They were running the ball really well against us but the game is still technically 0-0 right? Tie ball game and it could still go anyway. Just keep fighting."

On a day where the Hawkeye defense had some rare mishaps, the players showed what's made them so special this season in the 11th hour of the biggest game of the year. Players noted afterward (like they do after every game) that there'll be plenty to correct, and they're right. But ultimately, Ferentz said they contributed to the most important stat: the win column.

Would Iowa be one win away from a Big Ten West title had Ferentz benched Spencer Petras?

If someone were to tell you on Oct. 22, shortly after Iowa's 54-10 loss to Ohio State, that not only would Spencer Petras be the starting quarterback in the final game of the season but he'd be playing for back-to-back division titles, what would your reaction be? That's the exact situation next Friday: (presumably) Petras' last game at Kinnick Stadium could end with another West title.

At the core of Iowa's turnaround is the decision by Ferentz to keep Petras as starting quarterback during the team's losing streak. Quarterback play was undeniably one of the reasons for Iowa's struggles, but it's certainly been a reason for the winning streak as well. After four games, it's clear that Ferentz's trust in him paid off and Petras is on one of the best stretches of his career.

Ferentz gave Petras the nod leading up to the Northwestern game and he responded with one of the best games of his career; which helped spark the team's current four-game winning streak. His numbers during the streak are as followed: 63-of-100 (63%) for 727 yards and five total touchdowns (three passing, two rushing). Those numbers aside, the most important statistic of all is zero interceptions, a night-and-day turnaround from his three-turnover first half in Columbus. Saturday at Minnesota was another example, Petras completed 8 of his first 9 passes for 141 yards. Yes the offense did dwindle, but when it was most needed, he delivered a 33-yard strike to Lachey which set up the game-winning score.

Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras throws a pass against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, at Huntington Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn.

Petras didn't feed much into his own personal journey during postgame interviews, citing it's about the team's success; but Ferentz did comment. He said in a strange way, the adversity Petras has faced, not just this season but throughout his career, will help him throughout the rest of his life. But for the here and now, Ferentz is proud of how Petras has bounced back and the most important stat in football is getting wins. Petras has done just that in the last month.

"We started out 0-2 (in 2020) and he led us to six wins," Ferentz said. "He was a big part of us winning 10 games last year, and here we are right now with the opportunity to do something pretty cool. So I think it says a lot about him and then more importantly just how he's handled it."