All season long, the Iowa defense has been really good. It hasn’t allowed opponents to run the ball very effectively and for the most part it has kept teams from making big yardage plays at key moments.
You often found yourself wondering how good this team could be if it just got a little more efficiency from its quarterback on the offensive side of the ball.
It’s funny how these things turn around.
On Saturday, the Hawkeyes gave up more yards on the ground than they have all season and with the game hanging in the balance in the fourth quarter, their best cornerback got burned for a 68-yard touchdown pass.
But they still found a way to win, holding on for a 27-22 victory over Minnesota at Kinnick Stadium, keeping alive some slim hopes for a spot in the Big Ten championship game.
They did it in part because they got a very solid game out of quarterback Alex Padilla.
Padilla, making his first career start in place of Spencer Petras, didn’t pile up a lot of gaudy statistics. He completed only 11 of his 24 pass attempts for a modest 206 yards. He also rushed four times for three yards.
But he made the plays necessary to help the Hawkeyes defeat the Golden Gophers for the seventh straight time. He didn’t miss the few open receivers he had. He didn’t turn the ball over. He didn’t flinch when the Hawkeyes fell behind the Gophers on the scoreboard for the first time in five years.
“I was a little nervous at first with it being my first career start,” Padilla admitted. “It was everything I dreamed of: 70,000 people in the crowd and playing with my brothers. It was awesome.”
Calling a quarterback a “game manager” almost has come to be interpreted as an insult, but that’s what Padilla was Saturday. And in this case, it’s a compliment.
He didn’t perform a ton of heroics, but he did everything necessary under the circumstances.
It wasn’t easy since Minnesota was able to possess the ball for more than 40 minutes with an offense that collected 189 yards on the ground, 409 total. Even Wisconsin only rushed for 166 yards against the Hawkeyes.
Padilla and the Iowa offense had the ball for only 19 minutes, 41 seconds, but they did enough in those limited opportunities.
Not only did Padilla not have any bad moments, he had a handful of really good ones.
He threw an extremely accurate pass in the first half on which Charlie Jones made a diving catch for a 34-yard gain, setting up Padilla’s 1-yard sneak for the first touchdown.
He later found Jones behind the secondary for a 72-yard TD early in the third quarter. Padilla supposedly does not have as strong an arm as Petras, but it appeared powerful enough on that play.
“That’s one of those ones where you just try not to overthrow it because he’s so open,” Padilla said.
It’s the sort of play that Petras often has misfired on this season. Padilla didn’t miss when he got the opportunity.
There were a few other plays in which the sophomore from Greenwood Village, Colo., was able to scramble away from the pass rush and find open receivers, something the slow-footed Petras can’t do. It’s noteworthy that it’s only the second game this season in which the Hawkeyes did not allow a sack.
Padilla did enough to give the Hawkeyes a 24-16 lead early in the fourth quarter, and, after the Gophers scored on that 68-yard pass to Chris Autman-Bell, the Iowa defense finally made some plays to secure the win.
In truth, the game probably was decided by some ultra-conservative strategy by the Gophers earlier in the contest. Even though their running attack was grinding out yardage consistently, they three times settled for field goals in fourth-and-short situations.
The Gophers have gone for it on fourth down fewer times than any other team in the Big Ten this season and it really cost them Saturday.
After the Autman-Bell TD, they had a chance to tie the game with a two-point conversion and rather than going with what had been working so well all day, they tried to throw for the two points. Iowa’s Dane Belton swatted down the pass to preserve the Iowa lead.
As a result, the Hawkeyes still have a path to the Big Ten title game although they’ll need some help. They need to win their last two games — against Illinois and Nebraska — and hope that Wisconsin loses to either Nebraska or Minnesota.
It’s not a good chance, but it’s possible, especially if they continue to get mistake-free game management from the QB position.