By Pat Harty
MINNEAPOLIS – The Iowa football team was just seconds from defeating Minnesota 48-31 on Saturday when a group of Hawkeye fans made a promise to a security guard working at TCF Bank Stadium.
“Don’t worry, we won’t take the goal posts down,” the fans shouted in reference to when Iowa fans celebrated a Big Ten-title-clinching victory over Minnesota in 2002 by tearing down one of the goal posts at the Metrodome where the Gophers used to play their home games.
The fans kept their promise on Saturday by leaving both goal posts standing, while Iowa kept Floyd of Rosedale in Iowa City for another year by defeating the Gophers for the fourth time in a row and for the 14th time in the last 18 games.
Saturday’s game, which lasted 3 ½ hours, was both unusual and entertaining.
It was unusual in that Iowa had two true freshmen cornerbacks – Julius Brents and Riley Moss – both make their first career starts and combine for three interceptions, including two by Moss.
Iowa also scored its third touchdown in the game on a fake field goal called the Herky in which sophomore tight end T.J. Hockenson scored on a four-yard run after taking a direct snap from long snapper Jackson Subbert.
“It looked good in practice,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “There’s a little bit of risk, reward. I thought (defensive end) Sam Brincks made a really key block out there on the outside.”
Ferentz gave his approval to run the play after his assistant coaches convinced him that it would work if executed properly.
“They convinced me, and it was however many guys we have on our staff versus one,” Ferentz said. “That’s one vote I did lose.”
And if that wasn’t enough weirdness for one game, Iowa junior linebacker Amani Jones also was ejected late in the fourth quarter for targeting.
The outcome already was decided by then, but Jones now has to sit out the first half of next Saturday’s game at Indiana by rule.
Making matters worse is that starting middle linebacker Jack Hockaday injured his left knee late in the second quarter and didn’t return.
It’s uncertain at this point who will start at middle linebacker against the Hoosiers.
“We got a week to figure it out, so we’ll work on that and go from there,” Ferentz said.
The Gophers picked on Moss throughout the game, and at times made him look young and inexperienced.
But the Ankeny native just kept competing and he eventually made the Gophers pay with his two interceptions.
“I didn’t think that was going to happen, honestly, but I’m happy it did,’ Moss said of his two interceptions. “I don’t think I have ever had two interceptions in one game.”
Moss and Brents played the role of next man in for injured cornerbacks Matt Hankins and Michael Ojemudia, although, Ojemudia did play in Saturday’s game.
“Builds confidence,” Moss said. “I think I earned some trust as a defense. To be able to have (backups) that can go in and play just as good as the starters; it’ll work out well.”
Iowa’s performance on Saturday was sloppy at times and scintillating at times.
Junior quarterback Nate Stanley threw for over 300 yards for the second time as a Hawkeye, but he also committed two turnovers deep in Iowa territory that led to two Minnesota touchdowns.
Stanley's first turnover came after Iowa had taken possession at its own 20-yard line with 1 minute,12 seconds remaining before halftime.
Ferentz often gets conservative under those circumstances, but not this time.
He allowed his son, Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, to call a pass play instead of just running out the clock.
However, the decision turned into a disaster when Stanley threw into a crowd and was intercepted by Jason Huff.
The Gophers scored a touchdown just two plays later when true freshman quarterack Zack Annexstad connected with Tyler Johnson from six yards out with 53 seconds remaining before halftime.
"It was not a smart play," Stanley said. "I should have thrown that ball away."
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Momentum was clearly on Minnesota’s side heading into halftime despite trailing 28-17 and despite being outgained on offense by nearly 100 yards in the first two quarters.
The Gophers cut the lead to 31-24 on a one-yard touchdown run by Seth Green with 7:36 left in the third quarter.
But Iowa answered barely three minutes later with a touchdown on a five-yard pass from Stanley to tight end Noah Fant.
Miguel Recinos added a 20-yard field goal and reserve running back Mekhi Sarget scored on a two-yard run with 1:27 remaining to secure the victory, which improved Iowa's records to 4-1 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten.
"Anytime you win on the road, there's nothing easy about that, coming in here and playing in a tough environment," Kirk Ferentz said. "I'm really proud of our guys. It's great that our guys had to fight hard. We knew that was going to be the case and we got the opportunity to take Floyd back to Iowa City for a year, so that's really something to be pleased about."
The performance of the Iowa receivers, particularly sophomores Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette was another part of Saturday's victory to be pleased about.
Brandon Smith finished with a career-high five catches for 68 yards, while Smith-Marsette had three catches for 78 yards, highlighted by a 60-yard touchdown that gave Iowa a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
Smith-Marsette also returned a kick 49 yards after Minnesota had crept to within seven points midway through the third quarter. He had one defender to beat and tried to make a spin move to avoid him, but was tripped up.
Some in the media made the mistake of thinking that the Minnesota kicker had tackled Smith-Marsette, but he set the record straight after the game.
"It wasn't the kicker, it was the safety," Smith-Marsette said. "If it was the kicker, I don't think I would have gotten caught. It was a safety, so we can clear the air on that one."
Iowa's defense finished with five sacks, including three in the first half by defensive end Anthony Nelson, and had four interceptioins. But Minnesota also had 218 passing yards and three touchdowns through the air.
"We definitely have a lot of room to grow," Nelson said.
It felt like Iowa was on the verge of turning Saturday's game into a blowout on several occasions, but the Gophers hung around until the end.
But oddly enough, Iowa never took its foot off the gas on offense.
Stanley completed a 30-yard pass to Hockenson late in the fourth quarter that set the stage for Iowa's final touchdown.
It was surprising to see Iowa stay that aggressive on offense so late in the game, and with a victory all but solidified. But this was strange game for so many reasons.
It was also Iowa's first game since losing to Wisconsin 28-17 on Oct. 22 at Kinnick Stadium.
There was concern with Iowa coming off a bye week that it might start slowly against the Gophers. But that wasn't the case as Iowa scored two touchdowns barely half way through the first quarter.
"We just didn't let the Wisconsin loss get to us," Smith-Marsette said. "That was all."