MINNEAPOLIS — A tired Iowa defense reinforced not once, but twice in the fourth quarter.
And the Iowa offense, maligned all season, didn’t disappoint when it counted.
Jack Campbell’s unlikely interception and long return late in the fourth quarter turned into a dramatic 13-10 win for the Hawkeyes at Huntington Bank Stadium on Saturday. Freshman Drew Stevens’ right leg delivered the three points, a 21-yard field goal with 28 seconds left that puts Iowa within a Black Friday win over Nebraska to clinch the Big Ten Championship Game for the second straight year reach.
With Mo Ibrahim tearing through Iowa’s defense in the second half, it looked like Iowa’s fate would be sealed on a cold night up north. But instead, a fumbling recovery by Deonate Craig at the Iowa 9-yard line with 5:07 left returned the Gophers’ momentum in a 10-10 game.
And then, with the Gophers driving again after a three-and-out in Iowa, Campbell was huge. The all-American middle linebacker came with a tipped interception after Minnesota drove at Iowa’s 33-yard line in the dying minutes with a chance for a successful field goal. Campbell never stepped out of bounds on his runback, but officials ruled he walked out at the Minnesota 45-yard line.
Doesn’t matter. On the next game, Spencer Petras linked with Luke Lachey for perhaps the second-biggest close of his Iowa career, a 33-yard drive that put Iowa in the gold position for winning points. Petras ground the pass down the middle, and the second tight end secured the ball and (essentially) the win to support an unlikely comeback from Iowa’s defense.
And for the eighth straight year, the Hawkeyes (7-4, 5-3 Big Ten) secured their treasured hog, Floyd of Rosedale. A cold celebration was a joyous one. A win at Kinnick Stadium on Friday would be a pretty unlikely trip back to Indianapolis, wouldn’t it?
For the game, Petras finished 15-for-24 for 221 yards and no turnovers. Minnesota had two costly turnovers. That was the difference.
Ferentz vs. Fleck: Early fourth decisions were critical.
In a game designed to be about ball control and field position, Minnesota’s PJ Fleck made the first big decision. Fourth behind and less than a yard shy of his own 38, Fleck maintained his offense on the field…but ultimately decided to time out and choose to jab into the wind. The extra thought was understandable given Minnesota’s excellent running game and a 3-0 deficit. The punt was understandable too. But a 28-yard net top shot gave Iowa a good field position with 34 of their own.
Nine games later, Iowa had its own fourth down decision. Facing a fourth and two of Minnesota’s 36, Kirk Ferentz opted for the first down (instead of a 54-yard field goal from Drew Stevens with the wind or a pooch punt from Tory Taylor). The call was right, but also a big one — a missed conversion would have given Minnesota good field position and the ball. On a play-action pass, Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras did a good job buying a few extra moments under pressure and floated a pass to Sam LaPorta’s tight end, which was wide open near the left touchline after he executed a short cross from the right. LaPorta converted the shaky throw into a 24-yard gain, and Iowa was in business.
Three games later, Iowa was in the end zone on Petra’s third quarterback sneak touchdown of the season, leading 10-0.
Later in the second quarter, after Minnesota regained some momentum, Fleck had another fourth decision. With the fourth and 1 of Iowa’s 16 and no timeouts remaining, he decided to attempt a 34-yard field goal — which Matthew Trickett missed wide right by 38 seconds in the first half. Trickett had been 11-to-12 on field goals when he came on. As a result, Iowa secured a 10-7 halftime lead. The missed field goal proved huge.
The LaPorta injury threatened to get big.
Iowa uncorked its second-longest game of the season on its first game from scrimmage, a beautifully designed center screen to LaPorta, who caught the ball at the line of scrimmage and rumbled 58 yards through center court. A nice convoy of blockers, including center Logan Jones, left guard Connor Colby and receiver Brody Brecht, went ahead.
LaPorta would catch four balls for 95 yards in the first quarter alone, but the senior tight end didn’t return with a leg injury, which Iowa Radio called. It appeared that LaPorta injured himself on the fourth down on his 24-yard catch and then, after staying in for another play, was waved to the sideline. He was in uniform for the rest of the game, which could be a good sign the injury wasn’t serious. In LaPorta’s absence, Lachey was promoted to the No. 1 role, and true freshman Addison Ostrenga fielded for two tight sets (and notched his first career catch in the third quarter).
Lachey looked smooth in that role, catching five passes for 77 yards.
Also injured early for Iowa was fullback Monte Pottebaum (leg). Redshirt freshman Eli Miller, a walk-on from Colorado who wears the number 31, got most of the work as a full-back thereafter.
Needless to say, losing LaPorta — Iowa’s top offensive player — is a big deal. He is Iowa’s all-time leader in tight end receptions (now at 143) and has 1,682 career reception yards. (Marv Cook’s program record is 1,825.)
Ibrahim’s streak continues.
The dedication and patience of Minnesota’s running game is impressive. Even after a 10-0 loss to one of the nation’s best defenders, the Gophers didn’t deviate from their usual plan of relying on Mohamed Ibrahim. The senior got off to a slow start against the Hawkeyes but picked up momentum. And finally, Iowa started running blitz… and that backfired in the third quarter when Ibrahim dodged Riley Moss in the backfield and leaped to the left for a 54-yard gain.
Iowa cornerback Cooper DeJean did a great job recovering to save a touchdown, knocking Ibrahim out of the field at the Iowa 13-yard line. The Hawkeyes’ defense held from there, and a Minnesota field goal tied it 10-10.
A big curiosity that came into play was whether Ibrahim could continue his 18-game streak of 100-yard rushing plays against a tight-fisted defense. He certainly did, and he was the best player on the field. Ibrahim finished with a Huntington Bank Stadium record of 263 rushing yards on 39 attempts, his fifth 200-yard game of his career. That’s by far the most rushing yards Iowa’s defense has allowed an opponent this season; Chase Brown of Illinois
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered esports for The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen for 28 years. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.