Last week's extremely satisfying win over Northwestern is in the books, and now Iowa must start a two-game road spree by facing the Minnesota Golden Gophers. But who is this "Minnesota," really? Where is it? Does anybody really know? Here's what we can tell you.
Name: University of Minnesota
Location: Parts Unknown
Record: 6-2 (3-1)
Last game: 28-24 L at. Illinois
Last game vs. Iowa: Iowa 23, Minnesota 7, 2013
Ranking: Unranked, but getting a few more votes than Iowa
Passing: Mitch Leidner: 71-139, 1,087 yards, 6 TDs, 6 INTs
Rushing: David Cobb: 211 rushes, 1131 yards, 7 TDs
Receiving: Maxx Williams: 17 catches, 280 yards, 4 TD
Tackles: Damien Wilson, 86 (!) tackles
Tackles For Loss: Wilson, 8.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks
Interceptions: Three tied with 2 INT; Briean Boddy-Calhoun leads with 6 PBU
Minnesota's loss last week to Illinois was a stunner, particularly because it's the type of opponent to whom Minnesota just doesn't lose; the last time the Gophers lost to a team that finished below .500 on the year (which Illinois will most certainly do yet again), it was... against Iowa in 2012
Minnesota's steam engine is David Cobb, who is currently sixth in the nation in rushing yards per game with 141.4 to his name and third in rushes with 211 attempts (only WMU's Jarvion Franklin and our old friend James Conner at Pitt have more). Cobb ends up with the ball on nearly 43% of Minnesota's snaps, which is pretty crazy for a running back; by comparison, Mark Weisman is right at 22% for Iowa. Yeah, you would have thought higher, right? So: 43% is a big deal.
Cobb's not a burner in the open field, but his burst is more than fine. He's got short strides, which make for subtle, quick changes of direction, although he's a plant-and-go guy at his best. He's built to carry 30 times a game if he has to, no worries, and he can often wriggle forward for a couple yards after contact. Sounds more than a little like Shonn Greene, right? Cobb's not as patient of a runner nor quite as willing to initiate contact with a smaller defender, but he's in better shape and has better hands out of the backfield.
Mitch Leidner is technically the same strong type of dual-threat quarterback Minnesota has usually had under Jerry Kill, but he doesn't look to keep the ball nearly as often on the zone read—and he's not especially capable of burning defenders to the edge if they crash down, so it'll be imperative that Iowa keys on Cobb on these plays if possible. Leidner is not a particularly talented thrower, but his favorite target Maxx Williams might just be the best tight end in the Big Ten—certainly he's the best TE Iowa will face all year.
The key for Iowa will be to force Leidner out of his comfort zone and to improvise. The Hawkeyes gave up 96 yards to Justin Jackson last week and were never even remotely threatened by the Northwestern offense, so if Cobb gets four yards a pop, not ideal, but you learn to live with that. Illinois and TCU got their wins by limiting Leidner's effectiveness and forcing turnovers (combined stats for Leidner in those two games: 24-56 passing, 391 yards, 1 TD, 4 INT; 20 rushes, 7 yards, 1 fumble), and Iowa should be zeroing in on the sophomore QB as well.
Minnesota's defense isn't full of world-beaters—it's a bit below Iowa in yards per game and yards per carry—but it's got one of the most dynamic defenders in the Big Ten: MLB Damien Wilson. Wilson's got 86 tackles on the year already, tied for 14th best in the nation in tackles per game (alongside the immaculately-named Zeek Bigger from ECU) (ZEEK BIGGER, people!) and nearly twice the amount of the next-highest tackler on the Gophers, fellow LB De'Vondre Campbell.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is quite possibly the most underappreciated assistant in the Big Ten, and he's got a cohesive unit working once again. Minnesota gives up about 22 points per game (Iowa's right at 20), and even in the team's worst drubbing of the year, the 30 points Minnesota ceded to TCU remains a season-low for the Horned Frogs.
If there's one area that should give Iowa fans consternation, it's the Gopher pass defense, which is allowing a passer rating of 108.61 on the year, good for 18th best in the nation (Iowa's fifth, but Iowa has not faced a Trevone Boykin, to say the least). It is wholly plausible that Jake Rudock gets flummoxed into easy, low-output throws by the Gopher secondary, and when the Jakedowns start, the Iowa offense generally grinds to a halt. What we're saying is, don't be surprised if you're yearning for the Beathard Era to restart at some point on Saturday. And if Rudock succeeds (also wholly plausible!), this'll be the best defense he's succeeded against all year. Yes, even better than Indiana. Shocker, we know.
Jerry Kill is a smart coach, and smart coaches know their own tendencies. So while the Gopher offense has leaned heavily on Cobb all season long, Iowa will leave itself vulnerable to the passing game (particularly where the safeties are involved) if it comes out keying on him. And if there were any doubt whether Kill could appreciate the value of going against tendency, Iowa just held a masterful lesson against Northwestern last week—something that most certainly caught Kill's attention in film prep. Williams is big and athletic enough to punish safeties crashing to the LOS on the snap, so it'll be interesting to see how Iowa uses its back two.
Still, at some point Minnesota will need Cobb to do his thing if the Gophers are going to win this one, and Cobb's thing just so happens to be the Iowa rush defense's thing: mashing between the tackles. I'll trust the defense on this cold, stinging afternoon.