Each week, "One Defining Moment" will dive into the game's most important moment and break it down in all its glory, or in unfortunate cases, its horror. This week: Keagan Johnson's incredible YAC effort to score the winning touchdown.
Was that... a competent Iowa offense? It was something close to it, right? There were still obvious issues in the running game and I refuse to discuss the last "drive" (it was asinine and no matter how clearly somehow laid that fact out to Kirk he would never admit as much), but there was some real energy to this Iowa offensive unit. Padilla was moving behind the line of scrimmage and taking deep shots and there were multiple play calls against tendency. In particular, the wide receivers were given a chance to shine rather than merely acting as decoys to set up the next stretch run.
When the moment was biggest, no one shone brighter than freshman Keagan Johnson, who shrugged off multiple Gopher defenders, hoisted the entire Hawkeye team on his back, and scored the game-winning touchdown.
After a back and forth game in which Iowa's defense bent and bent and bent some more and the Iowa offense looked improved but inconsistent, the Hawkeyes found themselves clinging to a one-point lead to start the fourth quarter. The Hawks blocked a long Gopher field goal attempt to start the fourth, giving the offense strong starting field position and a chance to add to their slim lead. The drive sputtered but a long Goodson run on third down kept the drive moving and on the next play, Keagan Johnson decided he'd take care of the rest himself.
A Closer Look
There's not a ton to the play call here, although I will give Brian Ferentz credit for not running on first down (yes, I know the bar is low). Brian has been pretty good about starting drives off by going against type, but it seems that as the series goes on, he becomes more and more conservative. Here, though, the Hawkeyes use a quick play-action to set up the tunnel screen. Padilla never makes it to Goodson, but the few steps he takes in that direction let the defensive line crash into the middle, or at least stop them from heading outside towards Johnson.
Once the ball is thrown, there's really no one else to talk about besides Keagan Johnson. The play is not well blocked, hence the two Gophers hitting Johnson in the backfield, and as far as I can tell, there isn't a single block on the entire play save for Tyler Linderbaum blocking a linebacker on the far edge of the play.
The success of the play can be attributed entirely to Keagan. He somehow ducks under the two Gopher tacklers that absolutely should have turned the play into a loss. I mean, you can barely even find Keagan in this photo.
Keagan Johnson scored on this play. pic.twitter.com/gBF25mESnx— On Iowa Sports (@GazetteOnIowa) November 13, 2021
What breaks the play open though is Johnson's choice to spin back towards the sideline instead of working back towards the middle of the field. He can't see who's behind him, but he shows off a field sense that can't be taught and finds the open space. Once he finds room to run, it's a straight shot to the end zone and the highlight reel.
Johnson has shown that he's a tough runner multiple times this season, forcing his way onto the field as a freshman. I've clamored for more plays that get our receivers the ball with a chance to create and this is exhibit A as to why. The Iowa offense loves to run curls, but getting our most dynamic players the ball when they're actually facing the end zone they're trying to score in gives them far more room to turn short passes into long gains.
The Iowa offense doesn't have to become vertical to be more effective. Finding ways to get their best players the ball in a spot where they can create, whether that's a screen or even just a slant, would lead to a marked improvement in production.
Keagan's Herculean effort gave Iowa an 8-point lead and they needed every single one of those points. The Iowa defense was not at its best Saturday and Minnesota scored on a big play soon after this touchdown. The extra cushion forced them to go for two and enabled Kirk to turn his brain off when the offense took over at the opposing 3-yard line late in the game.
Johnson, along with Arland Bruce IV, have shown that the future of the Hawkeye receiver room is bright. The two freshmen have forced their way onto the field and their connection with Alex Padilla has been evident over the past two games. Iowa is never going to move away from its run-first identity, but the threats on the outside can help to create running lanes for Goodson. It makes play-action passes and draw plays that much better (look at Goodson's two third down conversions in the fourth quarter as evidence). Plus, their deep threat ability (and Charlie Jones deserves a shout-out for his great catches Saturday as well) discourages the safeties from creeping up too close to the line of scrimmage. More space on the second level should give Goodson a chance to turn more 2-yard plays into 6-yard plays and 6 yard plays into 16-yard plays.
The more balanced the offense is, the more threatening the offense will be. The more threatening the offense is, the less pressure is put on the defense to be perfect. Iowa's defense gave up a ton of yards on the ground and let Minnesota possess the ball for over 40 minutes. Usually, that's a recipe for disaster, especially when combined with the inept rushing attack the Hawks continue to trot out. Instead, talented receivers and an aggressive quarterback led the Hawkeyes to a win.
It's never going to be the formula for Iowa, but seeing Iowa find a way to win on the backs of its receivers and quarterback gives hope for a more balanced Iowa team. The pieces are there, here's hoping the Ferentzes realize what they have.