If you’re like me, you probably haven’t watched much (if any) Minnesota football this season. Good for you! You’re not missing much.
I for one, have only watched half of one of their games: against Oregon State. And in that game, the Minnesota running game went off, scoring five of the team’s six TDs. It became very evident to me that night that to beat Minnesota, teams have to stop the rush.*
*(The only caveat of course is that Oregon State is probably the worst team in the Power-5. And that’s not an exaggeration.)
And well, Iowa hasn’t exactly done a great job of defending elite running backs...
Saquon Barkley is just not fair. pic.twitter.com/kctEK2EBpg— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) September 24, 2017
This will be a similar test, although clearly Minnesota is not on the same level as Penn State, nor are any of its running backs as good as Saquon Barkley. But there will be a battle in the backfield, and it will primarily occur between Minnesota RB’s Rodney Smith and the Iowa linebackers. Backup running backs Kobe McCrary and Shannon Brooks are formidable too, but Smith is the largest playmaker of the bunch.
I first saw Smith in that same Oregon State game (obviously). Sure, he wasn’t the star Shannon Brooks was — but it’s not like Smith had a bad game: he carried the ball 30 times for 92 yards and a touchdown.
On the season, Smith has 545 yards, and 235 of those have come in the month of October alone. He has absolutely feasted since the beginning of the month, and is averaging nearly 5 yards a carry, including a season-long 51-yarder in their loss against Purdue. Sure, he hasn’t scored a lot of touchdowns, but it’s evident that’s he’s a crucial component of P.J. Fleck’s rushing attack.
We all know Iowa has done a lot of bending (and breaking!) this season, but stopping the run early and forcing Minnesota to throw will be huge. I have a hunch that Minnesota’s passing game is as abysmal to watch as it looks on paper.
But stopping the run will depend on a strong performance from...
The Iowa Linebackers
It’s tough to say whether the result of last weekend’s game would have been different with Josey Jewell. I’m in the camp that thinks yes. Jewell is the heart and soul of the entire defense, and we all know it. They’re just not as effective of a unit without him in every facet.
I think most of us agree that despite his absence last weekend, the defense still held their own for the most part, but having Jewell on the field for as many drives as possible will be crucial in stopping the run, and hopefully can create some pressure on the QB, too. He’s responsible for double-digit tackles in four of the six games he’s played in this season, and Kevin Ward performed... fine last weekend in his first start of the year. Ben Niemann picked up the slack, moving into Jewell’s MLB spot to total seven solo tackles and 11 total. More of that, please.
A healthy Jewell creates an Iowa defense on a completely different level, and is an X-factor for an already solid core of linebackers. Yes, they’ve given up a lot of yardage, but for the most part have also been the reason these games have been close.
This is a winnable game, and hopefully -knocks on wood- the defense can contain a strong rushing attack and force a bad QB to throw. I know Iowa hasn’t gotten a lot of interceptions but one or two in this game would go a long way in turning the game toward the Hawks’ favor.