IOWA CITY | Different year. Same script. Familiar result.
In a repeat performance of what transpired a year ago on the road, the Iowa football team survived a 60-minute battle Saturday with Minnesota to earn a 17-10 win at Kinnick Stadium that wasn’t decided until Anthony Nelson dropped Golden Gophers quarterback Demry Croft for a two-yard loss on a fourth-and-five play with 56 seconds remaining.
The sack was the fourth of the day for a Hawkeye defense which broke up seven passes, intercepted an eighth and recorded seven tackles for a loss.
“We fight until the end. You have to," Nelson said. “That’s just the way it works. We knew that we had to bring our best on defense. We knew it was going to be a battle."
And when it was over, the Hawkeyes presented the game ball to director of athletics Gary Barta, who is waging his own battle with prostate cancer.
Quick scoring drives to open each half — both a rarity for the Hawkeyes this season — led to the only two touchdowns Iowa needed to retain possession of the Floyd of Rosedale trophy for the third straight year and the 13th time in the last 17 meetings between the teams.
“We’re not the greatest team right now, but our guys have kept a good attitude," coach Kirk Ferentz said. “… The biggest thing is that the guys fought and fought for all 60 minutes. That’s Big Ten football."
Iowa never trailed after it went to the air early to position itself to score the only points of a first half dominated by defense.
Quarterback Nate Stanley connected with T.J. Hockenson and Nick Easley on passes of 22 and 25 yards on the first two snaps of the game, opening a quick five-play, 80-yard scoring drive.
The sophomore hit all three passes he attempted on the drive which ended when Akrum Wadley shook off the Golden Gophers’ Duke McGhee and raced 12 yards into the end zone.
“It seemed easy. It seemed smooth, but it never is like that," said Wadley, who led the Hawkeyes with 70 yards on 16 carries and benefitted from the return of James Butler. “Big Ten defenses, they aren't going to let you do anything easy."
The touchdown was the first points Iowa had scored on their opening possession in eight games this season and after it, the Hawkeyes failed to gain a first down on their next five possessions.
But, they weren't alone.
Croft, a sophomore making his second start at quarterback for Minnesota, hit on just 9-of-29 pass attempts in an outing which saw the Golden Gophers turned away in two early scoring opportunities.
Minnesota marched 68 yards on 15 plays midway through the first quarter before Croft overthrew 6-foot-10 tight end Nate Wozniak in the end zone on a fourth-and-one play from the Iowa seven-yard line.
Croft ran the fourth-down play after the spot of an initial ruling on the field was overturned by video replay, leaving the Golden Gophers inches short of a first-and-goal situation.
Stanley was intercepted by Jacob Huff on the next play and after taking over at the Iowa 48-yard line, Minnesota moved to the 14 where Croft threw a pick at the goal line.
Josh Jackson tipped a ball that was intercepted by Jake Gervase with 36 seconds remaining in the first quarter and the last time the Golden Gophers found themselves inside the Iowa 40-yard line until Croft gained seven yards on a carry with just over three minutes to go in the third quarter.
“Those stops were huge," Gervase said. “Anytime we can get off the field without giving up points, we're doing our job. They tested us and while we’ve got some things to work on next week, we did a decent job."
By then, the Hawkeyes had opened a 14-0 advantage that Minnesota struggled to dent.
Iowa’s second touchdown came on the Hawkeyes’ opening drive of the second half, just the second time this season Iowa has mustered any points on its initial drive of the third quarter.
After hitting Matt VandeBerg with an 11-yard strike on a third-and-10 play to keep the drive alive, Stanley hit Noah Fant in stride for a 45-yard touchdown that doubled the Hawkeyes’ halftime lead four minutes into the third quarter.
“He put so much air under that ball all I had to do was wait for it to come down," Fant said. “It was a great throw and it gave me enough room to run and finish it off. We wanted to come out and get things going to start the half. We knew we had to score more."
The Golden Gophers pulled within 14-7 on the second play of the fourth quarter.
Kobe McCrary did a somersault over the top of the Hawkeye defense for a one-yard score with 14:37 remaining in the game to finish off an eight-play drive.
His score came after Croft hit McCrary and Wozniak with passes of 13 and 10 yards to move the ball to the Iowa 4-yard line as the third quarter ended.
“We knew it was going to be a four-quarter fight," defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore said. “We had to go the distance."
The teams traded fourth-quarter field goals — Miguel Recinos hitting from 32 yards for Iowa and Emmit Carpenter answering with a 33-yard kick for Minnesota — to keep the Golden Gophers with a 17-10 score with 4:28 to play.
Iowa (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten) worked the clock but ultimately had to put the ball back in Minnesota’s hands with 1:21 remaining on the Hawkeyes’ ninth punt of the game.
Croft threw incompletions on both sides of a five-yard scramble before Nelson ended any hopes the Golden Gophers (4-4, 1-3) had of winning at Iowa for the first time since 1999.