MINNEAPOLIS − Iowa football's destiny was in its own hands when it kicked off against Minnesota on Saturday. The Hawkeyes needed an Illinois loss to give them a direct path to the Big Ten championship game, and Michigan delivered, kicking a last-second field goal to top the Illini 19-17.
The battle for the Floyd of Rosedale went as expected. Two bitter rivals battled to the end in a cold-weather, run-game dominated, physical fight. But in the closing seconds, Iowa made just enough plays for its eighth straight win in the series and put the Hawkeyes one win away from back-to-back Big Ten West titles. Iowa defeated Minnesota 13-10 and will play next Friday afternoon for the chance to return to Indianapolis.
Early on, it appeared as if Iowa would run away with the contest. The first play on offense was one of the longest of the season: a 58-yard screen play to tight end Sam LaPorta that instantly put the offense into the red zone. The Hawkeyes had to settle for a field goal, but points on the opening possession was a positive sign. On their next drive, the Hawkeyes marched 66 yards in 12 plays for the game's first touchdown to extend their lead to 10-0 halfway through the first quarter.
Tight end play was big for Iowa early, LaPorta and sophomore Luke Lachey were frequent targets and were the most effective mode for moving the ball. However, on a critical fourth down conversion that led to Iowa's touchdown, LaPorta was injured on the play and did not return. Without him, Iowa's offense lost steam.
LaPorta recorded four catches for 95 yards in just two drives of action. After his departure, Iowa accounted for just 186 yards for the remainder of the game. Against the nation's top third down defense, Iowa converted just 3-of-11 third downs (27%) and couldn't regain the game's early momentum.
There were opportunities to seize the lead. Midway through the third quarter the Iowa offense made it to the Minnesota 26-yard line but a series of negative plays pushed Iowa out of field goal range. On the next possession from their own 41-yard line, Spencer Petras and Nico Ragaini couldn't connect on what would've set the Hawkeyes up inside the Minnesota red zone and the drive resulted in a punt.
The biggest game-changer on Saturday was on offense but it was on the Minnesota side: running back Mo Ibrahim. Entering the game, the biggest question was how would Iowa fare against yet another elite running back. In his final game at Huntington Bank Stadium, the senior set a stadium record with 263 rushing yards and paced the Gophers offense that was led by redshirt freshman quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis.
A stickler for not giving up explosive plays, the Iowa defense surrendered four rushes of 15-plus yards to Ibrahim. In between big plays, Ibrahim's 6.7 yards per rush were more than enough to make the Gophers viable throughout the game. It's not often that Iowa's defense doesn't win the physicality matchup but that's what took place on Saturday. Two huge forced turnovers late shifted the game in the Hawkeyes' favor.
With 13:59 remaining in the game, Minnesota's offense went on a 16-play, 88-yard drive that consumed 8:52 minutes of game clock but resulted in zero points after linebacker Jack Campbell and safety Quinn Schulte combined for a forced fumble on Ibrahim inside Iowa's 10-yard line. However, Iowa's offense three-and-outed and gave Minnesota the ball back in less than a minute with favorable field position. With the ball on Iowa's 33-yard line, Campbell, the heart and soul of Iowa's defense, came up with the game-shifting interception and returned it to Minnesota's side of the field. At last, the offense broke through with the deciding score, a 5-play, 42-yard drive that was capped off by a short Drew Stevens game-winner.
About a month ago, Iowa's program was at a crossroads after three straight losses. Now, one of the more improbable turnarounds in Kirk Ferentz's tenure could lead to another division title. Iowa will play for two trophies on Black Friday against rival Nebraska.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Iowa's win over Minnesota creates clear path for Big Ten West repeat