The Aftermath: Minnesota

By BenSewardLewis on November 14, 2021 at 4:15 pm
go hawks go
© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
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I don’t know how Iowa keeps doing this, turning perfectly unassuming football games into drag races between two tumor-infested neanderthals on Rascal scooters. It is like they convince the other team to huff paint with them before kickoff, and both teams end up saying “fuck it,” taking off their shirts and wrestling in murky swamp water instead of playing football. It is absolutely hideous to watch, but Iowa keeps winning, so maybe this style of football is beautiful on the inside?

If you were to blot out the score of this game, you would be hard-pressed to find a single stat that supported the notion that Iowa won it. Not turnovers. Tanner Morgan has been very generous about sharing the football with opposing team this year, but got stingy against Iowa and Minnesota ended the game with a +1 turnover margin Running yards? Minnesota grounded Iowa’s defense into a pulp, churning out 189 yards to Iowa’s 71. Even the passing comparison doesn’t really help, as Minnesota passed for more yard than Iowa, albeit on more attempts. Iowa should have finished with fewer points than Minnesota, but just... didn’t. So eat it, stat-nerds! (Ben reaches for some Doritos.)

Minnesota won the toss and opted to keep the ball, and thank goodness, because I am 12% happier when Iowa’s defense starts the game. (I still do not understand why Kirk wants the offense to get the ball to start a game. Is putting your worst foot forward an expression?) It let the defense set the tone by holding Minnesota to a three-and-out, gave Jones a chance for a punt return, and took a lot of the pressure off of the offense.

Iowa responded, well, somewhat nicely actually. Goodson got things crackin’ with a pretty 12-yard run up the gut. On the ensuing third-and-six, LaPorta caught a pass short of the sticks but spun and churned to eke out the yardage needed for a first down. Another timing route to Arland Bruce the Quatro led to another first down, but Iowa got no further than the Minnesota 32-yard line. Enter: Caleb Shudek, who on a swirling, unpleasant November Saturday, sliced the 50-yard field goald try up and through the lower-right upright for a sweltering early 3-0 lead.

Minnesota came back with a field goal drive of their own. Fleck was determined to take Morgan and Iowa’s defensive line out of the equation with a series of stretch runs to the outside which forced Iowa’s linebackers and secondary to tackle in space. When those fellas over-pursued, there were massive cutback lanes for Minnesota’s running backs, and Iowa had a hard time making adjustments, largely because this wasn’t how the Gopher “normally” run their offense. Frankly, running things on offense that you haven’t put on film before is just plain rude. Despite the infuriating array of outside runs, Iowa managed to get a stop in the red zone and P.J. Fleck opted for a short field goal to tie the game.

Alex Padilla and the Hawks responded to this field goal with a bona fide, non-defense or special teams-aided touchdown drive and Padilla deserves a lot of attaboys for this one, because I don’t think Iowa scores without him. After a play-action rollout pass to Sam LaPorta for a quick first down, Iowa quickly found themselves in a 3rd-and-12 after an incomplete pass and a negative run. The Gophers only rushed three, but that didn’t mean much for Iowa’s pass protection. Padilla waited a couple of seconds, rolled out to his left and found LaPorta snuggling up to a soft spot in Minnesota’s coverage. The throw was not much to look at, but it was on-target and LaPorta snagged it for a huge first down.

A couple of plays later Iowa found themselves with a third-and-2 at the Minnesota 39-yard line. Rather than go with two pointless runs for no gain, Brian Ferentz instead called for a haymaker. Faking the run, Padilla stepped back with all of a second to throw before a gaggle of Gophers were set to envelop him. It was all the time quick-draw Padilla needed, as he flicked out a throw down the field to a well-covered Charlie Jones. It was a slight overthrow, but it was good for Charlie Jones, laying out in all his resplendent glory, to haul it in at the Minnesota 5-yard line. Tyler Goodson almost weaved his way in for a touchdown but came up a few inches short. Instead, Padilla got his first rushing touchdown of his career on the QB sneak on the very next play for a 10-3 Iowa lead.

Iowa forced the Gophers to punt, giving Iowa the ball and a chance to take complete control of this shindig. Instead, the offense produced a three-and-out, though not for want of trying on Padilla’s part, who bought time and threw a catchable ball to Keagan Johnson on third down to no avail when the ball bounced off of Johnson’s chest and onto the turf. A rare bad Tory Taylor punt for 31 yards gave Minnesota the ball on their own 41-yard line. They managed to shove their way to the Iowa 37-yard line, setting up a huge attempt for a conversion on fourth-and-2. So what play did P.J. Fleck dial up in a high-leverage, short-yardage situation on the road against a great run- efense? With the Gopher’s wildcat quarterback in the game, Ferentz, Phil Parker and every Iowa defender assumed a QB run. But not the yokel writing this article.

The yokel writing this article said, “It’s going to be a pass!” (I actually have witnesses to back this up.) Sure enough, P.J. caught the Hawks with their pants squarely around their ankles and asses hanging in the freezing cold wind, as the Gopher tight end faked a block and ran down the field uncovered, hauling in the pass and running unabated into the end zone. Matt Hankins, for his part, recognized the play late and punched the ball out, maybe before the end zone and recovered the maybe fumble, but there wasn’t enough there to over turn the call on the field (a touchdown) and Minnesota got an absolutely cheapo touchdown to tie the game again.

Iowa moved the ball and was working on reclaiming the lead at the end of the half when Padilla hit a wide open Nico Ragaini 12 yards downfield. Ragaini was swallowed whole by Gopher defenders, one of whom punched the ball out before Ragaini’s knee could hit the ground. With a Gopher player recovering the fumble, the stage was set for the Gophers to gnaw their way into the lead.

Luckily, P.J. Fleck has a diploma from the “Kirk Ferentz School of Derpy Halftime Clock Management.” A series of run plays moved the ball but also bled clock. With P.J. terrified at the prospect of Tanner Morgan passing, he let the clock hit :02 before calling a timeout and settling for the field goal. That kick gave the Gophers their first lead in this series since 2016, but at just 13-10 the damage could have been much worse for Iowa.

The second half was a marvel of amazement, oddities, and bafflements. Iowa’s offense had three plays, literally only three, that were worth a damn. Those three plays went for 111 yards. Iowa’s other 22 plays in the second half went for 31 yards total. So god bless those three plays. Iowa’s defense for their part spent the second half bending and twisting into pretzel knots, taking more jabs to the head than Rocky Balboa, but for their part only breaking once.

Iowa and the Gophers started by exchanging punts, before Iowa cashed in on one of those three “awesome play” tickets. On first down, Charlie Jones, single-covered, ran down the field and pretended to cut to the outside. The defender took the bait, moving his feet and his hips to defend one of Iowa’s typical dopey routes. With his man scooby doobie doobie duped, Jones cut upfield, completely wide open. Padilla had time to sit back and hit Jones in stride, who caught the ball angled away from defenders and ran into the end zone for a massive 72-yard touchdown.

Minnesota's offense bent their way into the red zone again, before the Hawkeye defense slammed the door shut and held the Gophers to a field goal, preserving a meager one-point lead. This lead found itself very much in jeopardy on the Gophers' next possession (after an Iowa punt naturally). The Gophers worked their way to the Iowa 36-yard line, setting up a predicament for P.J. Fleck on fourth-and-nine. Stuck with three unappealing choices between kicking, punting, or going for it, Fleck opted for a very long field goal. The kick had no chance of making it through Iowa’s field goal coverage unit, with the low trajectory kick hitting dudes in the shoulder pad and then flopping impotently on the ground, 50 yards from the goalposts.

Aside from maintaining the lead, the blocked field goal also gave Iowa its best field position of the game. A pass interference penalty on the Gophers moved the ball to the Minnesota 39-yard line, but the offense appeared stuck in neutral on a third-and-10. Iowa cashed in its second “awesome play” ticket on this one, though they owe a thank you to the Gopher defense, who seemed stupefied that Iowa called a halfback draw on 3rd-and-10. Goodson with space is a beautiful thing, and he ran away from the blitzer and weaved through turned Gopher defensive backs for 12 yards and a massive first down.

The very next play was Iowa’s last “awesome play” ticket. Now Kirk will happily tell you that execution can tank a great play-call. This play was fantastic execution salvaging an abysmal play-call. After faking a hand-off to his right, Padilla then threw the ball to his left out to Keagan Johnson for a screen pass. The Gophers had two defenders who were neither blocked nor fooled in the backfield and it looked to all like another negative play for this offense. But with both those defenders trying to make the tackle, they knocked each other over like two henchmen trying to go through a doorway at the same time. Johnson, who apparently possesses the balance of Simone Biles, never went down and suddenly found a route down the left sideline all the way to end zone and an 8-point Iowa lead.

Iowa and Minnesota then exchanged punts for the last time. All seemed to be in place for an awkward but nice enough 8-point win for the Hawkeyes before disaster struck. Hankins, covering the Gophers' Chris Autman-Bell, bit hard on the in-route and lost outside leverage. Autman-Bell cut upfield and Hankins wasn’t close enough to whiff Autman-Bell’s B.O. Daring Morgan to throw is one thing, but he doesn’t suck nearly enough to let their best wide-receiver run wide open down the sideline. Iowa stopped the two-point attempt, but that former 8-point Iowa lead became a much more precarious two-point lead.

At this point, the game descended into utter insanity. On fourth-and-one from their own 35 in a 2-point game, Ferentz elected to go for it, which... my god. The QB sneak got enough yardage (maybe!) but Iowa only managed four more yards from that point before punting anyway. (I loved the deep shot pass attempt to Bruce during that series, despite the missed throw.) Minnesota's offense, without the threat of a run game, transformed from a rottweiler into a chihuahua. The Gophers went backwards thanks to Iowa’s first sack of the game and their drive ended when Morgan’s fourth-and-17 pass fell incomplete and Iowa took over at the Minnesota 3-yard line.

In hindsight, the Gophers should have punted on fourth-and-17, because Iowa had no intention of trying to move the ball at this point. Iowa, even  three yards away from a virtually guaranteed victory, did not so much as try to do anything with football. If you think Ferentz thought that back-to-back QB sneaks was Iowa’s best chance to score, you either think too little of Kirk’s intelligence, or I think too much of it. The QB sneaks didn’t work with the bigger and stronger Petras earlier in the season. There was no way they were going to work with Padilla. Linderbaum can’t block 11 dudes. While the rollout to Pottebaum might have been a good call, I’m not even talking about passing in this situation. Give the ball to Goodson on a pitch. Spread them out and do a QB draw. Hell, an end-around to LaPorta would have been better.

Instead, Ferentz settled for a field goal and a 5-point lead. Obviously Iowa’s defense held thanks to a sack and a fumble (and Tanner Morgan drifting back and to his right for some reason, making the sack possible). I am happy Iowa won and the pig stays in Iowa City, but I cannot be stoked about objectively stupid decision-making. It lowered Iowa’s chances to win the football game and worked out in spite of Ferentz’s decision-making, not because of it. It would have taken one “That’s football” breakdown of an exhausted defense for that decision to blow right up in Ferentz’s face. (You know, like what happened a couple of drives prior.) Would a turnover have been terrible? Would failure to convert on fourth have been terrible? Your exhausted defense would still have had an opportunity to save you. I get it, you hate risk, but reward has to matter just as much, and putting the game away is a hell of a reward. A better cost-benefit analysis will not cost you any games, and will almost certainly win you more.

But whatever. I am being too grumpy about all of this. Iowa has Floyd for a record seventh straight year, which is objectively awesome. Floyd has never, repeat, never, spent this much time in Iowa City before. With Purdue's loss to Ohio State, Iowa’s path to Indianapolis is simple, albeit with some luck involved. Just beat Illinois and Nebraska and hope Nebraska or Minnesota can topple the Badgers. Iowa’s offense still stinks and Ferentz still makes poor choices, but I want to see the stinky offense in the Big Ten championship game and I am a lot happier that Floyd is safe and secure in Iowa City

 

Random Thoughts

*Padilla. I think most have accepted the fact that he is the better choice for this offense given his mobility, which is true, but I see a lot more than that in Padilla’s favor. He made a couple of bad decisions in the game, but he seems to process what he is seeing on the field much more quickly than Petras. (Petras does throw a prettier ball, but has Petras even once completed a pass running to his left? I have no memory of this happening.) He also wasn’t getting as much help from his wideouts as he could have received. Completion percentage be damned, 200 yards and 2 TDs is about as good as it gets with this offense.

*The offensive line maybe improved a little bit? There are still not so much a work-in-progress and a tire fire-in-progress in the running game, but no sacks allowed is obviously good despite the constant pressure and while some of that credit goes Padilla for his elusiveness, but the offensive line also seemed at least somewhat better in pass protection.

*Despite Taylor’s one bad punt, the special teams was the difference again. If Shudek misses that first field goal attempt and the Gophers' last kick isn’t blocked, that would be a six-point swing in the game. 

*The defense. While those running yards were annoying, the Gophers legitimately have a great running game and came in with a clever plan-of-attack. You can live with the rushing yard, but the two passing touchdowns were pretty awful. The good news is another bad quarterback awaits next with Illinois coming to town.

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