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Leistikow's 4 Iowa football thoughts: Hawkeyes energized for Minnesota matchup; will Riley Moss play?


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IOWA CITY — There are undeniably some positive vibes again surrounding the Iowa football team. Regardless of how it might have looked at times, the 17-12 win at Northwestern on Saturday was an important step in helping the players to feel good again.

In back-to-back losses against Purdue and Wisconsin — in which the offense scored only 14 points on 25 possessions — the Hawkeyes lost their mojo after rising to No. 2 in the national polls. As free safety Kaevon Merriweather described it Tuesday, the Hawkeyes were jumping up and down on the sidelines at Northwestern. Players knew they needed to rally around backup quarterback Alex Padilla, who entered the game and gave Iowa a jolt of energy.

“Coming off two losses, you can get a little frustrated or uptight about what’s going on. I think a win loosens things up a little bit,” Merriweather said. “… Boosts our confidence a little bit as a team.”

Often times in baseball, you’ll see managers give a top young prospect his first big action on the road. There’s a lot of pressure and anticipation about playing at home. But on the road, the mentality is more “go out and play” — and that’s exactly what Padilla did, completing 18 of 28 passes for 172 yards — most of that damage coming in his first 1¾ quarters of action before a run-heavy, clock-killing game plan with a two-score lead in the fourth quarter.

Wide receiver Arland Bruce IV said Tuesday that Spencer Petras, who started his 17th consecutive game at Northwestern but left after struggling with a shoulder injury, has been working as the understudy this week. Padilla is getting all the No. 1 reps and adjusting to being the guy.

“The whole team’s been rallying around him,” Bruce said.

The Hawkeyes (7-2 overall, 4-2 Big Ten Conference) will look to carry over some of those feel-good, fresh-start vibes at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against Minnesota (6-3, 4-2) at sold-out Kinnick Stadium. With some added energy from a quarterback change, the crowd should be raucous and upbeat for the Hawkeyes' first home game in 28 days.

Is Riley Moss cleared for takeoff against the Gophers?

It would be fitting if the senior cornerback returns from a left-knee injury for this particular matchup. Moss has four career interceptions against Minnesota — two in his first career start in Minneapolis as a true freshman in 2018; one to seal the 2019 upset win at Kinnick; and another last season that was accompanied by a 57-yard interception return.

“He’s had their number a little bit,” senior free safety Jack Koerner said. “If he wants to get another one for us or another two, I won’t complain.”

Moss has missed Iowa’s last three games but he is practicing this week with a left-knee brace and Koerner said his friend “is looking good. I’m just happy for him to get back.” Head coach Kirk Ferentz said Moss would be used "full throttle" Saturday barring a setback.

"Anytime you're getting guys back, boy, that's a helpful thing. Especially veteran guys like Riley," Ferentz said. "He was playing at a really high level."

Terry Roberts (one start) and Jermari Harris (two starts) have filled in for Moss, who after missing 3½ games has now seen his four interceptions this season become tied for the team and Big Ten lead with Dane Belton, who had two picks at Northwestern.

Koerner described what it is like to be injured and how his close friend, Moss, has stayed positive.

“It really drains you to see everyone else out here practicing, and you’ve got to come out here with the strength and conditioning guys; doing the arm ropes, things like that,” Koerner said. “The point of emphasis when you’re injured is to keep your head in it. To be able to take mental reps. … Riley’s done an incredible job of that."

While Moss is set to return, the news isn't as good for Roberts (bone bruise) and left tackle Mason Richman (leg), who Ferentz said is "week-to-week" after getting injured in the second quarter at Northwestern. Jack Plumb will get his first career start at left tackle against the Gophers, with Nick DeJong manning right tackle.

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What a stat: Iowa has not trailed against Minnesota since 2016.

The Hawkeyes rallied for a 14-7 win that early October day in Minneapolis with a 54-yard fourth-quarter touchdown by Akrum Wadley plus a two-point conversion, with 5½ minutes remaining. Iowa hasn’t faced a deficit against the Gophers since — spanning 245:28 of game clock and 61 months of world clock.

In other words, P.J. Fleck has never felt what it’s like to lead the Hawkeyes. This is his fifth season as Minnesota’s head coach, and he recently signed a contract extension through the 2028 season.

“We have a lot of respect for Iowa. They have a tremendous coaching staff,” Fleck said Monday.

Hawkeye coaches understand that Minnesota, with its ball-control philosophy, is a much better team when it’s playing with the lead. The Gophers are a lot like Wisconsin in that way. But they’re not a come-from-behind team, as evidenced by perplexing home losses to Bowling Green and Illinois, which on Saturday jumped out to a 14-0 first-half lead and hung on for a 14-6 win.

In 2019, when Minnesota had star receivers in Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, Iowa coaches understood the importance of grabbing an early lead. They went for a first down on fourth-and-1 from Minnesota’s 32 on the first drive and converted. Iowa raced to a 13-0 first-quarter lead and held off the 9-0, seventh-ranked Gophers, 23-19.

“It’s kind of our point of emphasis every week, to get on them fast and early,” Koerner said. “That’s definitely the game plan.”

So … if Padilla gets hurt Saturday, enter Deuce Hogan?

That's the plan. Ferentz said Petras is medically cleared but can't throw the ball effectively with his injury. Hogan, the redshirt freshman from Grapevine, Texas, was considered a big get for the Hawkeyes in the recruiting process. A four-star talent stuck with Iowa over a scholarship offer from Georgia. Naturally, Iowa fans have been clamoring for any glimpses of Hogan.

This week, Hogan is getting the No. 2 reps with Petras not practicing. Getting game-week practice time is a crucial step in Hogan's development.

“The advantage of being a 2 is you get a lot of work during the course of the week," Ferentz said. "It’s hard to practice three quarterbacks.

"Obviously, (Deuce) has been here for a while and he’s been paying attention and watching. He has gotten some work, but not as much as Alex.

"Alex is much more prepared to go in."

Bruce, who has largely worked with the second team during his first year in the program, knows well what both Padilla and Hogan can do.

Bruce said this of Hogan: “Everything you guys say about Deuce is true. He has a knack for everything. He can move just as well as Alex can. I think if he got a chance, he’d be ready, too.”

Safe to say, Iowa coaches hope Padilla plays well and stays healthy Saturday. But it’s definitely a good side benefit that Hogan’s development is probably accelerating as he knows he might be one snap away from being thrown into a meaningful Big Ten game.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.