I think it is going to be this way for most of the Legends Division games, but this weekend these teams look pretty evenly matched. They both, first of all, want to run the ball and stop the run. In a potentially wet and rainy game, we could be looking at a slopfest like last year's Iowa-MSU game. I don't think it'll be that ugly. But I think it'll be close and come down to just a few things...
Keep playing physical
While they go about it in slightly different ways, Iowa and Minnesota have similar game plans each week; run the ball and run it some more. Also, both teams also have been solid against the run. They both are giving up 3.4 yards per carry and right around 100 yards per game. Neither team has really faced a good enough defense to slow down the rushing attack, nor have they faced a team that has a physical rushing attack. But tomorrow we'll see what happens when the two physical running teams collide.
I think where Iowa will have the biggest advantage in this run vs. run game is at linebacker. Iowa's got their 3 senior, multi-year starters and Minnesota has a couple of new JUCO guys. As long as the defensive line can continue to eat up blockers, I think the linebackers will be able to shut down the Gopher's run game. Additionally, Iowa should be able to walk a safety down into the box, as Minnesota has shown no ability to throw the ball in their first 4 games. Which is why, Iowa needs to...
Make the Gophers pass
Minnesota is 118th in the country in passing yards per game at just 105.3. They have almost no passing game other than chucking 15-20 yard balls down the field a few times per game. It's still not clear who is going to start at QB for the Gophers, but neither Philip Nelson (who has been hurt and missed last week) nor Mitch Leidner has been good throwing the ball. Nelson has completed just 51.2% of his passes and has 2 picks to his 1 TD. Leidner's numbers look a little better at 12-20 for 176 with no TDs or INTs. But looking at last week's game, in which Leidner started, he was just 5 of 12 for 71 yards. A little bit of that is, why pass if you don't have to, but there is still plenty of just a not good passing game.
Whoever is playing QB, will also be a threat to run. Leidner carried it 24 times last week and was the team's leading rusher with 151 yards. Nelson has been quite the runner, but is averaging 6.7 yards when he does keep the ball. So, as much as playing contain instead of going after the passer is frustrating to watch, this is probably another week where it makes a lot of sense. It'll be better to have the Gophers try to throw than to pick up first downs with their feet.
Convert on third down
After struggling with third down conversion in the first game, Iowa has bounced back and become pretty effective moving the chains. A large part of that is thanks to picking up decent yardage on first and second down running the ball. The third and short plays have given Iowa to option to run or pass, and Jake Rudock has been good at finding his tight end for 6-10 yard pickups when they need it.
Even though Iowa destroyed Minnesota on the line of scrimmage last year, I don't think running into an 8-9 man box on first and second down is going to be as effective for the Hawks this year. Minnesota's defense has been good this year at getting tackles for loss with 30 on the season. If Iowa has some negative plays, then Rudock is going to have to step up and continue to play well on third down.
Quick side note looking at Rudock's stats. Why is he struggling so much on first down passing the ball? He's completed just 48% of his passes and all 3 of his interception have come on first downs. Second down though, he's been great. 26/31 for 200 yards and 2 TDs. Third down is also pretty good, 22/39 for 246 yards and 3 TDs. I'd expect with the solid running game, that first down play action would be helpful to his stats, but not so far.
Some kind of big play
For whatever reason, Minnesota seems overly amped up for this game. It feels kind of like Penn State in 2009, when the Nittany Lions had the game circled for ruining their season the year before. The fans wanted revenge. The players wanted revenge. And the game started in PSU's favor. They were ready to go. But after hung around and a huge blocked punt returned for a TD by Adrian Clayborn quickly turned the tides and brought the life out of PSU.
Last year against Minnesota wasn't quite the same. Iowa was thoroughly dominating with Mark Weisman. But that flea-flicker really sealed the deal. It was a perfectly timed play call that just took out anything left in Minnesota's sails.
A punt return for a TD, an interception, a trick play, a long pass to Damond Powell...anything like that will be a big game changer could turn the tide and emotions in Iowa's favor. In the past few weeks, we've seen that Iowa is very capable of pulling these type of plays off against inferior competition. Now it's time to pull them off against a B1G opponent and I think they can.
The two big differences in this game are going to be the way Iowa's linebackers stop Minnesota's rushing game and Jake Rudock's arm vs. either of the Gopher QBs'. It's probably going to be rainy, it is going to be physical and there is going to be a lot of running the ball. But what it'll come down to is Rudock making plays when he needs to and extending drives for Iowa vs. Minnesota failing to make plays on passing downs.
*Final Score: * Iowa 24 - Minnesota 20