By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Some of you thought I was crazy or delusional picking Iowa to defeat eighth-ranked Minnesota on Saturday, and it was easy to see why.
The Hawkeyes were winless against ranked opponents this season, while the Gophers were arguably the biggest story in college football as one of just two Big Ten teams still undefeated in November.
Minnesota finished with 431 yards and made some spectacular individual plays, especially in the passing game, but Iowa made just enough plays on offense, defense and special teams to prevail 23-19 at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa was reduced to the role of spoiler on Saturday, but nobody was complaining when the game finally ended as fans rushed the field to celebrate with the Iowa players.
The victory was Iowa’s fifth in a row over the Gophers, and that means Floyd of Rosedale, the bronze statue of a pig that goes to the winning team in this series, will reside in Iowa City for yet another year.
Saturday’s victory won’t erase the disappointment and frustration from losing three games to ranked opponents by a combined 14 points this season.
But it showed the pride, character talent that Iowa has because it took all three of those things to win.
The Iowa coaches also deserve credit for circling the wagons, and for having the team ready to play.
"I think our players certainly responded and showed they were determined coming into the football game tonight," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. "So it's just really pleasing to get the victory."
My faith in Iowa was also due partly to not believing that Minnesota was ready to handle the pressure of being undefeated this late in the season, and with the Gophers having to play in a hostile environment because the Iowa fans certainly did their part to create a hostile environment.
From the four A-10 fighter jets that flew over Kinnick Stadium just minutes before kickoff to the blackout to the alternate uniforms, the stage was set for a signature win and Iowa rose to the occasion.
It took repeated requests by the public address announcer at Kinnick Stadium to finally get the fans to leave the field after the game.
But who could blame the Iowa fans for wanting to savor the moment in a season filled with so much frustration from losing games of this magnitude?
“It’s a great feeling,” said Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa.. “We’ve lost some close game in the past and some things we could have done better.
“But we came out ready to go offensively and defensively.”
Iowa improved to 7-3 overall and 4-3 in the Big Ten, while Minnesota fell to 9-1 and 6-1 in the conference.
Freshman running back Tyler Goodson made his first career start, much to the delight of the fans, and the Georgia native seized the moment with a game-high 94 rushing yards on 13 carries. Goodson also scored Iowa's second touchdown on a 10-yard run late in the first quarter in which he plowed through a defender and into the end zone.
"For me, I didn't focus on the fact I was starting," Goodson said. "But focused on the next play and tried to make an impact that would help our team with the game.
"I'm glad I gained the trust of the coaches for tehm to put the ball in my hands and give me the best opportunity to make plays and score touchdowns for this team to win."
Senior quarterback Nate Stanley also threw two touchdown passes, while the Iowa defense did a lot of bending, but stiffened when it had to late in the game, especially on Minnesota's final possession when Epenesa and his cohorts had two of their six sacks..
Stanley said he could tell that Iowa was ready to play on Saturday just from the bus ride to the stadium, and from what had occurred in practice throughout the week.
“We knew that playing tight wasn’t going to help us at all so everybody was just ready to go and was playing loose, playing free and playing fast,” Stanley said. “I think everybody had a great focus, and I think you could kind of tell on the bus ride over, really.”
The victory continued a trend for Iowa in which it defeated a top-10 opponent in November at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa also crushed third-ranked Ohio State 55-24 on Nov. 4, 2017 and edged No. 2 Michigan 14-13 on a last second field goal by Keith Duncan on Nov. 12, 2016.
"They came out on fire," Minnesota linebacker Thomas Barber said of Iowa."Their offense was moving the ball and they played a really good game."
Minnesota scored a touchdown to trim the deficit to 23-19 with less than 4 minutes to play, but missed the point-after kick.
The Gophers then tried an onside kick, but it was recovered by Iowa tight end Nate Wieting at the Minnesota 47-yard line with 3 minutes, 26 seconds left to play.
Iowa ran three plays that gained just five yards and then Michael Sleep-Dalton punted into the end zone for a touchback with 1:52 remaining.
The Iowa defense then had back-to-back sacks, forced an incompletion and finally secured the much-needed win when sophomore cornerback Riley Moss intercepted a pass with 46 seconds remaining.
Stanley then took a knee on back-to-back snaps to melt away the clock.
Minnesota was threatening to score late in the third quarter when star receiver Tyler Johnson dropped a pass near the Iowa end zone.
However, Iowa freshman defensive back Dane Belton was called for a late hit on Johnson, and it appeared that Minnesota would have a first down at the Iowa 7-yard line.
But then Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after running on to the field, and that resulted in a change of possession and a first down for Iowa at its own 22.
Fleck had been pushing it the entire game as he seemed to be on the field more than some of his players. The officials finally had seen enough and penalized him at a horrible time for the Gophers.
But Iowa failed to capitalize as Stanley was sacked for a 16-yard loss on third down.
The offense that Iowa fan had been clamoring for all season finally showed up in spectacular fashion in the first half as Stanley and his cohorts shredded the Gophers for 221 yards, including 143 yards in the first quarter.
Goodson broke loose for 26 yards on his second carry of the game on a perfectly executed pitch play that had the Gopher defenders completely baffled.
Iowa had 113 rushing yards by halftime, led by Goodson’s 77 yards on nine carries.
The first half was an example of just how potent the Iowa offense can be when the running game is producing.
And the same with Stanley.
Give him a reliable running game, and some time to throw form the pocket, and Stanley often performs like an All-Big Ten quarterback.
He completed 8-of-10 passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns in the first half.
His first touchdown pass came on the opening drive of the game when Stanley connected with Nico Ragaini on a 21-yard scoring strike with 11:26 left in the first quarter.
Stanley also completed a 5-yard touchdown pass to Ihmir Smith-Marsette that expanded Iowa’s lead to 20-3 with 6:20 left in the second quarter.
"I thought in the first half we did a great job of controlling the first half pretty much in all areas on offense," Kirk Ferentz said.
Minnesota’s Brock Walker made his second field goal of the first half as time expired to trim the deficit to 20-6 at the break.
His field goal from 20 yards made it a two-score game heading into the third quarter, and the Gophers wasted no time in cutting into the lead even more on the opening drive of the quarter, driving 66 yards on six plays for a touchdown that came on a 28-yard pass from Tanner Morgan to Tyler Johnson with 11:35 left in the third quarter.
At that point, it was game on as the momentum started to shift to Minnesota’s side.
The momentum continued to shift to Minnesota’s side when Stanley was sacked on third down on Iowa’s first possession of the third quarter.
What had been a celebratory atmosphere inside Kinnick Stadium suddenly became more reserved as the Gophers started to show why they entered the game undefeated.
But Iowa still found a way to persevere and to prove all the doubters and naysayers wrong.
Iowa only gained 69 yards in the second half, but that was enough to help get over the hump and to bring some joy to a season that had been tarnished by three gut-wrenching losses.
This victory was a case of better late than never.
Minnesota 0 6 7 6 – 19
Iowa 13 7 0 3 – 23
I – Nico Ragaini 21 pass from Nate Stanley (run failed)
I – Tyler Goodson 10 run (Duncan kick)
M – Brock Walker 24 FG
I – Ihmir Smith Marsette 5 pass from Stanley (Duncan kick)
M – Walker 20 FG
M – Tyler Johnson 28 pass from Tanner Morgan (Brock Walker kick)
I – Duncan 27 FG
M – Rodney Smith 1 run (Walker kick)