Leistikow: Iowa football keeps winning in unthinkable ways; Hawkeye players aren't surprised
MINNEAPOLIS − An argument could be made that there were no two bigger plays to this Iowa football season than the Deontae Craig fumble recovery and the Jack Campbell interception in the final five-plus minutes of the Hawkeyes’ 13-10 win over rival Minnesota at Huntington Bank Stadium.
Without either one, it’s close to a certainty that Iowa drops to 6-5 and squanders its path to the Big Ten Championship Game.
Yet those plays happened, and the Hawkeyes do not believe they were accidental. Campbell’s forced fumble of Mohamed Ibrahim at Iowa’s 9-yard line with 5:07 left was the first big break, halting an 88-yard drive that spanned almost nine minutes. Campbell’s interception off a deflection by Riley Moss and 30-yard runback with 2:06 left thwarted a second potential game-winning march for Minnesota.
One by one after the game, Hawkeye players touted the culture led by head coach Kirk Ferentz and the disciplines preached by defensive coordinator Phil Parker as why they were able to believe those turnovers would come and why they continued to fight.
Here’s how Campbell perfectly put it.
“If you buy into just doing the little things consistently, it’s going to add up. You might not see it Day 1. You might not see it Day 43,” Campbell said. “But you might see it on Day 122. And that’s where I feel like this push-through has happened.”
Campbell’s words are a reflection of the mantra that Ferentz has preached every week in news conferences. Improve a little bit every week. Keep going back to work. Eventually, it’s going to come together.
“Each game has been its own unique challenge, and each week is its own challenge,” quarterback Spencer Petras said. “… Four straight wins is never easy, especially in the Big Ten in November.”
Saturday’s win was almost a perfect encapsulation of Iowa moving past problematic issues in previous games.
Leistikow's postgame thoughts:How the final five minutes tipped in Iowa's favor
The offensive line. Embarrassed in a 54-10 loss at Ohio State, the front five has had three solid games out of four. Last week’s regression vs. Wisconsin (six sacks allowed, 146 total yards) had Ferentz worried, but with Nick DeJong in at right guard for the injured Beau Stephens, Iowa averaged a solid 5.4 yards per play at Minnesota and Petras was sacked only once on 26 drop-backs.
“You stay with it. I think it started three weeks ago,” Ferentz said. “Took a step back last week, but the guys went back to work. I’m proud of those guys, because you worry about that. … They practiced well last week and went out and competed.”
Penalties. Remember the Michigan and Illinois losses? Some ill-timed (controversial at times) flags vs. Michigan were costly in a 27-14 loss, and eight penalties for 67 yards directly cost Iowa points in a 9-6 loss to the Illini. But on Saturday, Iowa committed no penalties for the first time since the 2019 Outback Bowl vs. Mississippi State. (Minnesota didn’t commit any, either.)
Quarterback play. Petras was downright awful against South Dakota State and Iowa State, and he might have had his worst game at Ohio State. But since that day in Columbus, Petras has played the best football of his Iowa career. On Saturday, Petras carried the Hawkeye offense on a brutally cold, windy day with 15-for-24 passing for 221 yards. He made several strong, clutch throws in key moments, including the 33-yarder to Luke Lachey to set up the winning field goal.
Petras was given the nod over Alex Padilla after a post-Ohio State quarterback competition and has been terrific since: 63-for-100 for 727 yards. And in 16 quarters, zero interceptions thrown.
“For us, that’s critical. That’s just how we’re built and how we’re wired,” Ferentz said. “I think we know who we are. A lot of credit to him on that.”
The kicking game. Going way back to Week 2, Iowa might’ve gone to overtime against Iowa State instead of losing 10-7 if Drew Stevens had been named the placekicker before Week 3. Stevens has turned a preseason question mark into a reliable staple. Stevens improved to 15-for-17 on field goals with his game-winning 21-yarder with 28 seconds to go. His 15 field goals are a program record for a freshman. (Not even Nate Kaeding did that.) And hey, Minnesota missed a field-goal attempt Saturday; Iowa didn't. The final margin was three points.
Overall, Iowa’s special teams have been critical in delivering trophy wins the past two weeks. Tory Taylor, who had been punting too many touchbacks for his liking, was outstanding with four of his five punts Saturday being downed inside the 20, including two at the 3-yard line. That’s how (in part) you hold a team to 10 points despite yielding 312 rushing yards.
Turnovers. Iowa committed six at Ohio State. It's committed one since, and it's forced at least two turnovers in all three November games (Purdue, Wisconsin, Northwestern). A plus-2 turnover margin helped gloss over a 119-yard deficit Saturday.
"We were gonna win the game, and we did everything but win the game," Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. "But when you miss a field goal; you're down 10-0 to Iowa really early; give up two explosive plays in the first half; you fumble when you're going in, throw an interception when you're going in. Not going to beat Iowa.
"Remember, we always talk about how Iowa doesn't beat themselves. There you go. They force you to beat yourself. We happen to be another victim today."
So, constant and steady improvement have been imperative to Iowa's late-season push. It doesn’t mean Iowa is dominating. But it means the Hawkeyes are getting better every week. And now the challenge is to be even better against Nebraska.
A win Friday against the 3-8 Cornhuskers, and the Hawkeyes (7-4, 5-3) will win the Big Ten West Division (either outright or by virtue of a tiebreaker against Purdue) for the second straight year. Since switching to morning practices and changing the off day to Thursday (instead of Monday) following the 2014 season, Iowa is 7-0 against Nebraska on these short weeks of preparation.
No, a win won’t come easy against the Cornhuskers, who have played Iowa within a touchdown in each of the last four meetings. Nothing comes easy for Iowa.
But rest assured, this team will fight (and believe) for 60 minutes.
A win, and Iowa gets a rematch vs. either No. 3 Michigan or No. 2 Ohio State on Dec. 3 in Indianapolis in the Big Ten title game.
“I’m pretty comfortable with how this week is going to go … what we need to do, how we need to game plan and how quick this game is going to come up,” Iowa safety Kaevon Merriweather said. “… It’s an incredible opportunity and chance we have ahead of us, for sure.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter