Even though it might not be the real HATE WEEK for Iowa, it sure is for Minnesota. However, I’m sure we can find enough hate in our hearts for our simple-minded neighbors to the north. (Full disclosure: I am from Minnesota, and probably have been described as being simple-minded by many.)
Minnesota comes off a gut-punch of a loss to Penn State, where Saquon Barkley reeled off a 25-yard touchdown run for a walk-off win in overtime. Let’s watch it.
Oh yeah that’s the good stuff.
Anyway, it’s not like Iowa fans have much to cheer about themselves what with the Hawkeyes not being good and all.
In order to set a record for self-loathing, we reached out to our friends over at the Daily Gopher to answer the real tough questions about this matchup. Big thanks to Blake Ruane, who goes by IowaGopher over in those parts. Yeah, we had an Iowa fan from Minnesota and a Minnesota fan from Iowa run the show on this. The internet is a strange place.
Ben: What is the official status of Mitch Leidner in Gopher lore? We know all about Leidner Island and what have you, and we may have to wait and see what he does for the remainder of the season to finally get in the good graces of some fans, but seriously, what does this guy have to do to be universally liked? Furthermore, should Iowa fans be even more worried about him Saturday? He has accounted for 400 yards passing, 100 yards rushing and 5 touchdowns in his last two games against Iowa.
Blake: Mitch Leidner will never be universally liked. That is the sad truth. Minnesota could go undefeated and there would still be a contingent of fans who'd complain about Mitch. He could complete all but one pass and all that contingent would focus on is that one incompletion. It's absurd. But for some reason certain Gopher fans have chosen Mitch to be their whipping boy, no matter the circumstances. Thankfully, criticism of Mitch has been much quieter this season, but the voices are still there, waiting for him to have a game with multiple interceptions.
Personally, I don't think Mitch is a great quarterback, but I do think that he has done enough to be considered a good one. He is the perfect fit for what the Gophers want to do on offense. He executes the zone read to perfection, and is an even better runner now that his left foot has recovered from offseason surgery. He has looked poised and comfortable in the pocket this season, even under pressure, and his decision-making has been much improved, aside from a few bad throws here and there. Mitch has been terrific this season, in my opinion.
For some reason, Mitch saves his best for the Hawkeyes, so I do think Iowa has reason to be worried. I know that their secondary is strong with Thorpe Award winner Desmond King at cornerback, but Mitch threw for 259 yards and averaged 9 yards per pass in Iowa City last season. And it doesn't seem to matter who he is throwing the ball to with the Hawkeyes. In 2014, it was Maxx Williams. In 2015, it was K.J. Maye and Brandon Lingen. I realize people want to dismiss Mitch as a good runner and an average passer, but don't underestimate his ability to air the ball out.
Ben: What about his receiving options? Besides Drew Wolitarsky, is there anyone else who could give this Iowa secondary some fits?
Blake: Drew Wolitarsky is the Gophers' top receiver, but junior walk-on Brian Smith emerged out of nowhere to become a legitimate receiving option in the passing game. Personally, I thought his production would fade once the Gophers hit conference play, but he made a lot of big catches against Penn State and even totaled 100 receiving yards. So he has been a pleasant surprise. Freshman Tyler Johnson has also had a promising start to the season. Sophomore Rashad Still is the Gophers' deep threat who can stretch the field, and he returns to practice this week after being out with a shoulder injury. If he sees the field on Saturday, expect Mitch Leidner to take a couple shots down field to Still.
With tight end Brandon Lingen out with a collarbone injury, 6'10'' tight end Nate Wozniak has stepped into his role as the Gophers' top receiving tight end. His blocking continues to be a work in progress, but the Gophers obviously love his size in the passing game.
Ben: It seems like Rodney Smith is the go-to guy in the Minnesota backfield. It's been a little bit since the Gophers have had one true running back, it seems, though it looks like Shannon Brooks is getting his in as well. What do the two offer in your rushing attack, and is Smith a guy you envision as a game-changer if not now, in the future?
Blake: Rodney Smith has definitely been the workhorse through the first four games of the season, which comes as no surprise since Shannon Brooks only returned from injury in the Gophers' third game. What was surprising was that that trend continued against Penn State last Saturday, even when Brooks appeared to be having more success than Smith, averaging 7.1 yards per carry on 14 carries with a total of 100 rushing yards. Smith also rushed for 100 yards against the Nittany Lions, but needed 9 more carries to reach the century mark.
Before this season, Smith was regarded as the more patient and elusive of the two backs, but he has proven to be a much tougher runner this season. All five of his rushing touchdowns have come inside the 5-yard line. Brooks is more of a home run threat than Smith. He can score whenever he touches the ball, and the Gophers haven't had a running back like him in quite a few years. Brooks is the type of physical runner who thrives off contact and takes pleasure in barreling through defenders. He also has that second gear that allows him to break away from defenders when he finds space. Together, they're a nightmare for opposing defenses. And both are sophomores, so the Gophers' rushing attack is set for the foreseeable future.
Ben: This offensive line has only allowed three sacks all year. How much of that do you attribute to talent, and how much of it goes with the competition Minnesota has played?
The offensive line was the big question mark heading into this season, and I'm not confident that that question has been answered, even four games into the season. Three sacks in four games is impressive on paper, but the line has also benefited from Mitch Leidner being able to escape the pocket or get rid of the football when pressured. They've been solid for the most part but inconsistent, in my opinion. Which, considering the level of competition thus far, is a concern. Depth is also an issue. Beyond the five starters, there is a black hole of youth, inexperience, and a general lack of talent, if I'm being quite honest. Can this unit stay healthy through conference play? We'll see. Iowa will represent the best defensive front the Gophers have faced so far this season, so we won't have to wait long to find out whether this offensive line is for real.
Ben: On the defensive side of the ball, who should Iowa fans familiarize themselves with? Jack Lynn seems like a pretty good guy on the outside, and Nick Rallis when he's healthy. I imagine it was pretty deflating to watch Saquon Barkley go for 25 yards on the first play to lose to Penn State in overtime.
Blake: It was about as deflating as that third touchdown pass from Clayton Thorson must have been for the Hawkeyes. I think he did the same thing to Ball State last season, so you shouldn't feel too bad. What made that 25-yard touchdown run from Saquon Barkley so gut-wrenching was the fact that the Gophers had bottled him up completely during regulation. Prior to that overtime touchdown run, he had rushed for 38 yards on 19 carries, and was often met in the backfield by a Gopher defense that was reading the run exceptionally well the entire game. But we must move on...
As you mentioned, linebacker Jack Lynn is the quiet leader on defense and the team's leading tackler, and he'll be asked to step up with linebacker Cody Poock sidelined with a shoulder injury. Senior safety Damarius Travis is a stud in the secondary who will make a lot of tackles in run support, with 16 total tackles and 3 tackles for loss on the season. Senior cornerback Jalen Myrick is the most vocal member of the defense, so I'm sure you'll come to hate him by the end of the game. I'll also give a shoutout to defensive tackle Steven Richardson. He is a bowling ball on the defensive line and a disruptive force who has frequently drawn double teams because of his tendency to make life miserable for offensive linemen.
It'll be interesting to see if sophomore KiAnte Hardin and redshirt freshman Ray Buford have an impact. The two were listed at first- and second-string cornerback to start the reason before being suspended in Week 2. Their suspension has been lifted and both have returned to practice this week.
Ben: Minnesota has only notched 9 sacks on the year, is the pass rush something you guys worry about?
Blake: Only on Saturdays. Oh who am I kidding, Gopher fans have been wringing their hands about the pass rush every day for the last six years. It's been the weak link of the Gopher defense since Jerry Kill brought his coaching staff to Minnesota. The fact that this staff hasn't been able to develop even one elite pass rusher is a constant source of frustration. But the Gophers do have a defensive line coach, I'm told. What he does, I don't know. Freshman defensive end Tai'yon Devers gave Gopher fans a spark of hope when he collected three strip sacks in the first three games, but a cut block has sidelined him with an ankle injury. Defensive tackle Steven Richardson is an absolute beast up the middle, but with nothing to fear on the edges, opposing teams have been free to neutralize him with a double team. I wish I had more positives, but it is what it is. The pass rush was a huge liability against Penn State and made life hard for the secondary. If they can somehow get to C.J. Beathard, my advice to you would be to start drinking heavily.
Then again, Northwestern did double their season sack total against Iowa, so perhaps God has one more miracle left in the tank.
Ben: Tracy Claeys has been at Minnesota for almost a full season now if you take into account his interim games from last year. What's the read on him in Dinkytown so far? I imagine he's no Jerry Kill, but people seem to be cautiously optimistic about his abilities. I believe he is working under a three-year contract, do you see him staying past that?
Blake: Jury's out on Tracy Claeys at this point. There's too much season left. Personally, I'm on the fence. I was a fan of the hire last season because I felt good about the direction of the program and thought the best move for continuity was to keep the current staff in place. Last year was a nightmare of a season for a number of different reasons, so this year is a chance for the staff to prove that was an aberration. The perception before the season was that the schedule set up nicely for an 8-4 or 9-3 season or better. If the Gophers are sitting at 7-5 or 6-6 or worse at the end of the season, athletic director Mark Coyle will have a tough decision to make. Will he have a quick trigger finger? I don't know.
I know I mentioned that part of the appeal of retaining Claeys was keeping the coaching staff intact, but I'm going to contradict myself a bit. One of the most impressive offseason moves that Claeys made was firing the offensive coordinator and the quarterbacks coach. That made it clear he wasn't interested in riding the coattails of Jerry Kill. He was going to make this program his own. Claeys acknowledged that there were problems on offense and took steps to address them. Kill was all about loyalty, but almost to a fault. He was never going to part with offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, no matter what depths the offense sunk to. Claeys is a straight shooter who is more much analytical and business-like than Kill, and I like that about him.
There's also the question of who Minnesota would hire to replace Claeys. Les Miles is not coming to the Twin Cities. Coyle is not going to be able to nab a big name coach. Claeys and staff were pulled from Northern Illinois. Would Minnesota be able to do better than a MAC coach? Would they look to Western Michigan's PJ Fleck? And would that be a surefire upgrade? You never know. It's somewhat similar to the situation in Iowa City. There are Hawkeye fans clamoring for a change, but is there someone willing to come to Iowa who would do better than Kirk Ferentz? It's all about understanding your program's ceiling, and no one in either fan base -- Minnesota or Iowa -- seems to be in agreement on how high that ceiling is.
Ben: Who hates Iowa?
Blake: If you're at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, I can guarantee you'll find out the answer to that question, early and often.
Ben: Is Burrito Loco elite?
I crowdsourced this to the rest of the Daily Gopher staff to establish a consensus, and I can confirm that Burrito Loco is elite. Burrito Loco even has a special place in the heart of the Floyd of Rosedale, so I don't know how you can argue with that.
Ben: And finally, let's get your score prediction and any other scorching hot takes you have about the game.
Blake: Honestly, I can't remember ever being less excited for this game, and I'm a Gopher fan who lives in Iowa. The Hawkeyes are reeling from losses to North Dakota State and Northwestern at home. The Gophers are trying to rebound from a deflating road loss at Penn State. Neither team has looked the part of a contender in the Big Ten West so far. I realize this is probably a division elimination game for both teams and that the Floyd of Rosedale is on the line, but the stakes just don't feel as high in this game for some reason. Something must be wrong with me. I'm fairly certain it'll be an ugly game and the team that makes the least amount of mistakes will win. Last season, the Gophers gave the Hawkeyes all they could handle in Iowa City. And we're just two years removed from the Gophers' blowout win over Iowa at TCF Bank Stadium, where the Hawkeyes are 1-3. I tend to think both teams are pretty evenly matched in terms of talent, though I'm sure there are quite a few Hawkeye fans who will foam at the mouth at the mere suggestion that .
Ultimately, I think the Hawkeyes continue their recent struggles in Minneapolis and leave without Floyd. Minnesota 20, Iowa 17.
Oh, I almost forgot to include the hot takes. Let me think... America doesn't need farmers, and there actually is beer in Heaven. Am I doing it right?
America doesn’t need farmers? You’re a monster.
Seriously though. If you’re a Minnesota fan and reading this, please send Burrito Loco to Chicago. Or at least Tweet pics to @BHGP.
Thanks to Blake, I guess, for giving us the fuel we need to get MAD for our second of no fewer than three hate weeks. I would wish his team luck tomorrow, but that would be lying.