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Leistikow: A successful first start for Alex Padilla and ... the big-play Hawkeyes?


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IOWA CITY — When it became clear early in the week that Alex Padilla was going to be Iowa's starting quarterback against Minnesota, Kirk Ferentz said he and other Iowa football coaches didn’t make a big deal about it.

“We just all acted like it's his turn,” the 23rd-year head coach said. “It’s his time.”

That was the perfect way to sum up what would unfold for Padilla in Iowa’s 27-22 win against Minnesota on Saturday night.

It was his time.

Everyone inside the Iowa program trusted Padilla to perform. And he rewarded them with a rivalry win that pushed 14th-ranked Iowa's record to 8-2 for the season and 5-2 in Big Ten Conference play.

Padilla had so much trust from coaches, they had him take six deep shots out of Iowa's mere 49 offensive plays. Padilla connected on two of them — both to Charlie Jones, which included a 72-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. Iowa's longest passing play in more than two years was a great double-move route by Jones, and a perfect throw from Padilla.

“We thought there would be some favorable coverages for us to take some shots on,” Padilla said of the aggressive mentality. “They were starting to load the box with those safeties, the corners were playing outside. The stuff down the middle of the field was open.”

In his starting debut, Padilla completed 11 of 24 passes for 206 yards — 8.58 yards per attempt — and accounted for three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing). In the seven-plus quarters that he has held the reins as Iowa's QB1, Padilla has yet to personally commit a turnover. That's the kind of stat that racks up more trust from coaches.

“(I was) a little nervous, but really excited to go once I got out there,” said Padilla, who led Iowa to a field goal on his first possession and a touchdown on his second. “Everything I dreamed of.”

Afterward, Padilla was quick to credit his teammates and coaches. And for good reason.

Padilla had plenty of help.

The Jones play, with Iowa trailing 13-10 in the third quarter, was a great call by Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, who dialed that up after studying some Minnesota tendencies defensively on first down.

More: Leistikow's 6 thoughts after Iowa football's 27-22 win against Minnesota

And we haven’t mentioned the man Padilla replaced yet, but we should. Freshman Keagan Johnson went out of his way to point out how Spencer Petras has been a positive teammate since seeing the offense being transferred to Padilla last week vs. Northwestern.

“A great leader on the sidelines,” Johnson said. “Just a great teammate.”

Ferentz said Petras wouldn’t have been able to throw Saturday with a right shoulder injury that’s been slow to heal. Petras was in uniform but didn’t throw passes in warmups. Ferentz said Petras could’ve run Iowa’s four-minute offense in an emergency.

But back to Petras’ help. He gave Padilla plenty. Padilla was getting emotional as he spoke about his good friend — who happened to give him his best advice on game week.

“Rip it.”

“You can start to overthink things when you’re making your first start, try to force stuff,” Padilla said. “Spencer’s word of advice was just ‘Rip it.’ That kind of eased my nerves a bit.”

During the game, the help continued from the QB who started Iowa’s previous 17 games.

“He suggested a lot of great plays for us,” Padilla said. “I’m super thankful for him. He helped me all the way.”

Padilla wasn’t perfect. He threw two balls that were nearly intercepted. He had 13 incompletions, though Johnson had two drops and several were smart throwaways.

Padilla’s mobility was an asset. He didn’t take any sacks.

More: Iowa football instant analysis: Strong fourth quarter keeps Hawkeyes' division title hopes alive

It was a weird game. Iowa only had 19 minutes, 41 seconds of possession time for two reasons.

One, the defense had a tough time getting off the field against Minnesota’s ball-hogging approach.

Two, the offense was … a big-play offense.

(Talk about a weird thing to say.)

That’s why Johnson, whose highlight-reel touchdown catch-and-run of 27 yards gave Iowa a 24-16 lead in the fourth quarter, said this after the game.

“I felt like this was our best game offensively as far as moving the ball,” Johnson said. “… I didn’t feel like we had the ball forever, but I felt like we produced when we needed to. This was well-needed, and I think we grow from here.”

While some may scoff after a 277-yard night, the Hawkeyes’ 5.65 yards per play was their highest in a game this season — topping the 5.57 vs. Kent State and even the 5.35 in the 51-14 rout at Maryland.

That’s why it’s a no-brainer that it's Padilla’s “time,” as Ferentz put it.

His time should (and will) continue into next week’s game against Illinois.

As you might imagine, Ferentz was publicly noncommittal on who his quarterback will be against Bret Bielema’s Illini. He gave the usual, "we'll see what happens in practice" answer.

But he’s right: Iowa now has two quarterbacks it can trust. For now, only one is healthy. And Padilla is giving this Hawkeye team some interesting juice entering the final two regular-season games against Illinois and Nebraska. A 10-2 season is within reach. With a little help, maybe a Big Ten West crown.

“We all have a lot of confidence because he prepares hard and works hard and he really cares,” Ferentz said of Padilla. “There's no specific thing that he is lacking, other than experience.”

Padilla certainly got a big helping of that Saturday before a sold-out crowd, under the lights at Kinnick Stadium.

Padilla is a low-key guy, but he had a big celebration after his quarterback-sneak touchdown in the second quarter — the first TD of his college career of any kind. He jokingly said he’ll dial it down on the next one.

But this was a great first, starting step for Padilla. It was a performance that should have Hawkeye fans, coaches and players excited to see what happens next.

“I love playing this game and to be able to play with my brothers,” Padilla said. “That’s the biggest reason why I love playing this game, it’s the ultimate team sport. To get a win like this in front of our home crowd, Blackout, awesome atmosphere. … I’m just really thankful for all my teammates. They helped me all the way.”

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.