It was the biggest play of the game, but the man who called it isn't too proud to admit: The Gophers got lucky, at least a little.
Kyle Henderson surprised Iowa's pass-protection unit by charging into the backfield on third-and-4 with five minutes to go in the third quarter, and the Gopher cornerback reached Iowa QB James Vandenberg untouched, slamming into him to knock the football loose. The Gophers, with their end zone only 14 yards at their backs, recovered the ball and ended the drive, their first takeaway in six weeks and their first fumble recovery since the season opener.
It was a critical turnover for the Hawkeyes, who had already piled up 366 yards of offense but only 14 points. And it was set up by three quarters of lining up as if to blitz, then backing into normal coverage.
"We knew we were going to blitz one play out of the series, but I didn't know where. We had been showing the blitz on third down, five or six [times], and backing out, so it was time," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. "Sooner or later you've got to bring it. Otherwise, it gets to a point where they know we're backing out all the time, and [Vandenberg] would have held the ball and found people. It was time for a little bit of change-up."
What the Gophers couldn't know, however, was that the Hawkeyes had called the perfect play for Henderson's charge. Vandenberg intended to throw into the end zone, rather than just pick up the first down, and to buy a little extra time while receiver Marvin McNutt got downfield, he took a step or two to his right, intending to roll out toward the sideline. That meant he could only see half the field, and didn't realize Henderson was attacking from behind him.
"They had a sprint-out pass called, so he couldn't get rid of the ball right away. He was trying to roll the pocket," Claeys said. "Had it been a straight drop-back, it's a little bit more of a risk" because Vandenberg could have seen Henderson coming.
Upfield, safety Kim Royston rotated into position, in case Vandenberg threw the ball back to his left to Kevonte Martin-Manley, the redshirt freshman whom Henderson had lined up against. Even that was another piece of good fortune for the Gophers: Iowa coaches decided shortly before Saturday's game not to suit up junior Keenan Davis due to an ankle sprain he suffered the previous week against Indiana. Davis has 30 receptions, four of them for touchdowns, this season.
"That made a big difference because you didn't have to worry as much about defending both sides of the field," Claeys said. "Royston was there over the top, so we had everyone covered," something far less certain had Davis been on the field as well. "Any time you blitz, that's the gamble you take. ... Sometimes it works out."
And sometimes, it changes a game.