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Leistikow's DVR Monday: Brian Ferentz deserves credit for 'gutsy' calls in Iowa's win at Minnesota

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Iowa rushed for only 59 yards in a 13-10 win at Minnesota on Saturday, but 38 of them came on back-to-back plays in the third quarter. A well-blocked Leshon Williams 17-yard run was followed by Kaleb Johnson going for 21 yards around right end, thanks to pulling center Logan Jones and an excellent seal block by tight end Luke Lachey.

The score was 10-10 at that time. But Minnesota dominated the game from there, starting with a cornerback blitz to sack Spencer Petras for a 10-yard loss to crush Iowa’s drive. Over the next 18-plus minutes, the Gophers gained 141 yards to Iowa’s minus-6. Yet, neither team scored any points in that span.

That’s because of turnovers and bend-don’t-break Iowa defense. That’s where this week’s DVR Monday column begins.

Some more detail about those two monster turnovers.

What caused Iowa to give up 312 rushing yards, including a career-high 263 to Mohamed Ibrahim? Minnesota’s offensive line was punishing and, as Fox’s Spencer Tillman pointed out, excellent at releasing Iowa defenders early enough to avoid getting flagged for holding. Neither team was penalized on this frigid night. Additionally, Ibrahim’s footwork was remarkable. There was one third-and-2 play in which Iowa’s John Waggoner and Yahya Black got penetration, but Ibrahim stopped in his tracks and reversed his path and charged ahead for a 3-yard gain and a first down. He was elite, as Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck would say.

In other words, Iowa’s undersized defensive line had its hands full all night. But this group regularly rotates nine players, and that depth played huge in the first of two Minnesota turnovers in the final 5 minutes, 7 seconds. Here’s why.

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The Gophers’ 16-play, 88-yard drive that consumed 8:52 in the fourth quarter started with a 16-yard Ibrahim run against the defensive line of Waggoner, Aaron Graves, Black and Lukas Van Ness. That group stayed together for the first seven plays, until Minnesota reached Iowa’s 41. Then defensive line coach Kelvin Bell subbed in Noah Shannon and Logan Lee at defensive tackle; one play later, Deontae Craig and Ethan Hurkett were inserted at defensive end. By the time the punishing drive ended, Iowa’s defensive-line snap counts were: Black 10, Graves 9, Lee 9, Waggoner 8, Van Ness 8, Craig 8, Hurkett 8, Shannon 4. Why is that important?

Because on the 16th play, with Minnesota facing third-and-4 from Iowa’s 13, the defensive line still had juice. Ibrahim’s runs of 7 and 8 were becoming 4 and 5. And now came another handoff left to Ibrahim. But Hurkett, at right defensive end, pushed his man back and didn’t allow Ibrahim to get the edge. Ibrahim cut inside and tried to get as much as he could get, but safety Quinn Schulte made first contact at the 12 and Jack Campbell walloped him at the 10, and the ball came out. (“I just tried to hit him as hard as I could,” Campbell said.)

Craig, the left defensive end, had alertly chased the play and fell on the fumble at Iowa’s 9 to stop what could have easily been the winning points. A lesser defensive line with less depth wouldn’t have held up in these conditions; but Iowa’s came through.

Of course, the defense wasn’t done. The most memorable play of the game, Campbell’s 30-yard interception return that should’ve been 75 if not for an errant official’s whistle, never would’ve happened without two critical plays before it. After Ibrahim raced 19 yards to Iowa’s 35 as the clock dipped below 4 minutes, he got the ball again on what would be his 39th and final carry. Ibrahim was stacked up by Lee, Black and Campbell for a 1-yard gain … then hobbled to the sideline. On second down, Shannon got outside help from Cooper DeJean to bottle up Trey Potts for 2 yards. Finally, Minnesota was facing a third-and-long.

“We did what we needed to do on first and second down that possession,” linebacker Seth Benson said, “and forced them to throw the ball there. Then tipped ball, and Jack’s in the right spot.”

Indeed, an Athan Kaliakmanis throw – ending a string of 15 straight Minnesota rushing plays – was batted into the air by cornerback Riley Moss and snagged by Campbell. Seeing that happen rekindled something Fleck said earlier in the week about Iowa being so adept at catching interception opportunities. It was just a few minutes earlier that a rollout pass by Petras to Williams was deflected into the air, but defensive back Terell Smith dropped the potential interception that hit him between the hands at Iowa’s 9-yard line with 4:24 to go. Campbell? He didn’t miss. And that’s why, in part, he’ll be a first-team all-American soon.

Jack Campbell waited for his opportunity to pounce against Minnesota
Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell forced a fumble and recorded an interception in the final five minutes of a 13-10 win.
Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

What caused P.J. Fleck to be overly conservative?

Fleck got heat from Minnesota media in the aftermath of the Gophers’ eighth straight loss in the series in part due to a late-first half decision to kick a field goal on fourth-and-1 from Iowa’s 16. The field goal was wide right by inches.

But Fleck has so much respect for Iowa’s defense that he becomes risk-averse. That cropped up in last year’s 27-22 loss in Iowa City, in which he chose to kick three short field goals in Iowa’s red-zone rather than going for fourth-and-goal at Iowa’s 2, a fourth-and-1 and a fourth-and-2.

In both years, Minnesota dominated the line of scrimmage and rushed 100 times for 501 yards. But again, despite consistently having a forward-churning run game, he got wary of Iowa’s defense in key situations.

Saturday, two plays before the fourth-and-1 field goal might have affected Fleck’s decision-making. On second-and-4 from the 19, Ibrahim was flattened by Campbell for a 3-yard gain. Then on third-and-1, Campbell drilled Kaliakmanis as he threw, and the pass was nearly intercepted by Moss. Seeing that Iowa’s defense was stepping up with its backs against the wall, maybe it was understandable that Fleck go for three there with Iowa leading, 10-7.

Later in the third quarter, Minnesota charged into the red zone behind Ibrahim’s 54-yard run. But after a 4-yard Ibrahim rush to the 9, the Gophers passed twice in a row and threw incomplete each team. Waggoner’s pressure on Kaliakmanis on third down forced a rushed throw and, ultimately, a tying field goal.

Again, credit Iowa’s defense for having an intimidation factor. That confidence certainly showed up late in Saturday’s win.

Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras details the final sequence in win over Minnesota
With Iowa's win over Minnesota, Hawkeye quarterback Spencer Petras has a chance to win back-to-back division titles next Friday on senior day.
Kennington Lloyd Smith III, Hawk Central

Kudos to Iowa’s offensive coordinator for a strong game.

While it may be unpopular to praise Brian Ferentz, there can be little argument that the sixth-year OC has squeezed as much as he can out of this Iowa offense over the past two weeks. Saturday, a little creativity went a long way on Iowa’s first snap of the game.

With Arland Bruce IV back in the lineup after missing the Wisconsin game (in which Iowa gained 146 yards but won, 24-10, and held a time-of possession advantage thanks to timely play calls and execution), the Hawkeyes used his jet-motion action to the left to their advantage. Minnesota’s defense flowed left with Bruce and Williams, and Petras also looked left. Meantime, left guard Connor Colby and center Jones leaked downfield. A classic bit of misdirection was all Sam LaPorta needed to take two steps to his left, then tuck inside for one of the easiest catches of his stellar career. Petras looked back over the middle and hit LaPorta one yard behind the line of scrimmage − illegal man downfield penalties are only warranted if the ball is thrown past the line of scrimmage. A ball that traveled 7 yards in the air gained 58 yards, with LaPorta running into wide-open space downfield. That quick-strike success helped set up an early field goal for a 3-0 Iowa lead.

All offensive coordinators need a rock-solid fourth-and-short play call in the gameday arsenal, and Ferentz used his to set up Iowa’s lone touchdown on its second drive. Facing a fourth-and-2, LaPorta snuck out from the right side of the line on a shallow cross as Petras looked right initially on play-action, knowing he would come back to the left to his reliable tight end. The only problem was that Minnesota had pressure on Petras, who side-stepped the play and floated the pass to LaPorta for 24 yards. Also to be commended, Ferentz's call of a toss-sweep right to Johnson on the next play that nearly scored. That 11-yard gain got Iowa to the 1, and Petras snuck it in two plays later.

Another great call – but one that didn’t work – was in a 10-10 game in the fourth quarter. With Iowa facing a third-and-6 from its own 41, Ferentz used a rare “02” personnel − no running backs, two tight ends − along with three wide receivers. Out of shotgun against a three-man rush, Petras was given plenty of time to throw while Minnesota blanketed short crosses by Bruce and freshman Addison Ostrenga. Petras had other ideas. He was going deep to Nico Ragaini, who ran his route behind the crossing Brody Brecht, and Ragaini was open for a potential 59-yard touchdown – but the hard-thrown ball caromed off his hands, incomplete. As Ferentz once told me, some of his best play calls don’t work.

“You can’t float a ball like that with a half-field safety. I think it’s one where I could help him out (and) he can help me out,” Petras said. “It would’ve been awesome if he could’ve snagged it. But obviously, the ball was moving really fast. Would have loved to body him up. Probably missed by about six inches to a foot, which obviously sucks. Really nice job by him, a nice route, just got to finish those. Happy we got a chance to get the ball back.”

Two possessions later, Petras didn’t miss by six inches with the game on the line. He connected with Lachey for 33 yards, a play call that was a response by Ferentz to seeing Minnesota’s safeties cheat forward in their run fits. And it was a beauty. Immediately after Campbell’s interception, Iowa went into max-protect (seven pass blockers) against a four-man rush. But five additional Gopher defenders bit on the play-action fake by Petras, and Iowa had three receivers running deep while all five were turning around to chase. At that point, Petras just had to find the most open man between Ragaini, Lachey and Diante Vines. And he hit the man in the middle. Lachey didn’t catch it cleanly, but he secured the ball as Tyler Nubin delivered a hit, but not before he reached the Minnesota 12-yard line.

“What a wonderful, gutsy call right there,” Tillman said on the broadcast.

Officials botched the game-ending sequence.

Why did head coach Kirk Ferentz call timeout before Drew Stevens’ 21-yard game-winning field goal? Because game officials created a confusing sequence that ended up giving Minnesota more time than it should have had for its final, last-gasp drive. When Williams was tackled at the 3-yard line to force a fourth-and-1, there was 1:06 left in the game. Minnesota was out of timeouts. But when the clock hit :31, officials got buzzed that the play was under review.

After ruling that Williams didn't fumble, Iowa presumably planned to call timeout with 1 second on the play clock. However, officials failed to reset the game clock and play clock to its previous status, and the clock stayed at :31. So, Ferentz called timeout, as Brian Ferentz was well onto the field to dispute what was happening. Had officials gotten it right, Iowa would have drained all 40 seconds on the play clock before calling timeout, and Stevens’ kick would have snapped with 26 or 27 seconds left, not 31. A five-second difference could have been a huge deal. Ultimately, it wasn’t in this case, but that’s why Hawkeye coaches were upset. And understandably so.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.