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Matchup to Watch: Minnesota’s pass defense vs. Alex Padilla

Will the new Hawkeye quarterback be able to navigate the Golden Gopher defense?

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen, Iowa City Press-Citizen via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Week 1: Ty Fryfogle vs. Iowa’s corners
Week 2: Charlie Kolar/Chase Allen vs. Iowa’s linebackers
Week 3: Kent State’s corners vs. Iowa’s wide receivers
Week 4: Thomas Pannunzio vs. Tory Taylor
Week 5: Maryland’s offensive line vs. Iowa’s defensive line
Week 6: Jahan Dotson vs. Iowa’s secondary
Week 7: George Karlaftis vs. Iowa’s tackles
Week 8: BYE
Week 9: Jim Leonhard vs. Brian Ferentz
Week 10: Kirk Ferentz vs. Himself

After an underwhelming first couple of series, Kirk Ferentz kickstarted the Iowa offense by turning Alex Padilla loose in relief of the injured Spencer Petras. The Hawks quickly scored two touchdowns.

Kirk Ferentz struggled in his game management towards halftime and Iowa could only muster three points after the break, in part due to a reversion to a very boring end game which almost bit them again against Northwestern. Thankfully, Kirk turned the ugly “0-6 when 10+ point favorite” stat against the Wildcats into 1-6.

Can’t win them all back at once.

The #20 Iowa Hawkeyes (7-2, 4-2) are now in a 4-way tie for the Big Ten West which includes the Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-3, 4-2). Prior to their loss against Illinois last week, the Goofers were on a four-game winning streak, beating opponents by a combined totals 125-66. Then they laid the six-point stinker against Bert. Classic.

In each of those wins, they were able to get early leads against their opponent and take the air out of the ball with their top 5 time of possession (a clean 35:00 per game). Against Illinois, they had it just 29:40 as they had their gameplan used against them.

If the Hawkeyes are going to counter that, it’s important to score early as Iowa has done in every game against PJ Fleck. They hold the lead in the first half at 69 (nice) to 23 and 41 (!!!) to 7.

To get there, they’ll need to use the full range of Alex Padilla’s capabilities.

At the risk of simply rewriting Thad’s Rewatch column, Iowa returned to more classic Hawkeye football with Alex Padilla under center - and under center is a key word. The play action was relatively shelved with Spencers Petras, at 44 of his 223 pass attempts (19.7%), but found more success in Padilla’s time. It was called on 11 of his 28 attempts (39%) - twice as much!

In Padilla’s time, he showed a quick release, nuanced manipulation of the defense, and better ability to throw on the run. Iowa will need to balance his abilities with a quality run game to ensure they can poke holes in the Minnesota air defense.

Minnesota has show susceptibility through the air, meaning, they have not yet put the clamps on an opposing quarterback. They intercept just 1.6% of opponent passes (105th in the country) and sack QBs at a mediocre rate as well (6.9% for 58th).

Yet they have done an excellent job of keeping teams out of the end zone, as their 18.3 opponent points/game ranks 15th and have held their last seven opponents to 23 points or less (the 23 was a garbage time Nebraska TD, for what it’s worth).

They do this by forcing teams off the field - 16.2 allowed first downs/game ranks 9th while their opponents convert third downs at a 34.8% rate, 25th in the country.

Two of their four interceptions were collected by safety Tyler Nubin, including this game-sealing one against Purdue:

While freshman corner Justin Walley leads the Rodents with 4 passes defended, it is largely a team effort as The Daily Gopher described. A team where everyone commits to their role, keeps opponents in front of them, and forces teams to string together a ton of small plays to score.

The Gophers have been a tough out for Iowa under PJ Fleck on a couple of instances - his first shot at Iowa was a low scoring 17-10 Hawkeye win and 2019 saw his then-undefeated team fight to come back after Iowa established a double digit lead. 2018 & 2020 were less competitive affairs, though Iowa has largely struggled to move the ball through the air against Minnesota.

If the Hawks are able to win, it’ll be because they can keep Minnesota off balance just enough defensively while maintaining a strong defensive edge we’ve seen throughout this season. With Alex Padilla in his first start, the uncertainty increases in how the Gophers will need to defend Iowa which could prove to be the difference in a game which is projected to be laughably low-scoring.