Minnesota returns to Iowa City this weekend, but this year, things are quite different, thanks to their energetic new head coach P.J. Fleck. Fleck has the Gophers off to a 4-3 start to begin his first season at the helm, although they’re 1-3 in Big Ten play with their only win in a close game against Illinois.
To get to know the Gophers a bit better, we enlisted the help of the site manager at The Daily Gopher, GoAUpher. We asked about Minnesota’s playmakers, how Iowa can take advantage of the Gophers, team growth under a crazy car salesman, and of course, his prediction for the game this weekend.
Without further ado, let’s get to it.
Max: It's Year 1 of the P.J. Fleck era! Things have predictably gotten off to a rocky start, but how have you seen the Gophers grow thus far under his tutelage?
GoAUpher: The play of the young wide receiving corp is the most impressive thing in my mind. Minnesota's wide receivers in the Kill/Claeys era were never a source of strength, and watching the improved route running and technique has been a joy. None of this should be shocking given Fleck and WR coach Matt Simon's pedigree, but it's still been a lot of fun. The other area that seems to be flourishing under Fleck and Co is the linebackers. This is a good thing given that this was expected to be a position of strength and the defense really needed it to be given the depth issues at DL and the secondary.
Max: The Gophers haven't been able to settle on a quarterback this year, with both Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft getting some run at the position. Which are we likely to see this upcoming weekend and what challenges will they present to the Hawkeyes?
GoAUpher: Croft. Even if he plays terribly I expect you'll see a full dose of Demry Croft. Overall Rhoda's average play has been just as bad as the slop Demry rolled out last week. I'd argue that overall it was worse even though his stat lines were better because his problems (e.g. an inability to step up in the pocket, inability to run read option, not a running threat, etc) are core issues. Demry's primary issue is that his decision making is probably a bit worse. But his ceiling is WAY higher.
Basically, Rhoda at his best isn’t good enough to win in the Big Ten and he doesn’t even play at his best now that we’re in the conference season anyway. Both QB’s at their worst are going to lose us the same number of games. But Croft at his best (or even at his average) is better for the offense than Rhoda (which I feel he showed against Michigan State).
TL;DR: Minnesota has quarterback problems but if we're lucky Good Demry shows up and brings home the bacon.
Max: The Gophers boast all sorts of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. Outside of Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, who Iowa fans are familiar with, who has the potential to burn the Hawkeyes defense?
GoAUpher: If I'm happy on Saturday night Tyler Johnson will likely be part of why. The sophomore WR is Minnesota's best passing threat and Demry Croft's favorite target. He runs good routes, has good hands, can create separation, and has the athleticism to turn YAC into points. You should also be aware that Minnesota lives up to Glen Mason's "pair and a spare" running back mantra and Kobe McCrary is likely going to see time against Iowa due to Brooks and Smith coming off being dinged up. A less heralded name to watch for is TE Nate Wozniak. He won't be a primary offensive option, but the coaching staff seems to have fixed his stone hands issues which makes the legit 6'10" receiving option a fun guy to mix into the pass game. He's also got his YAC on this season on those TE routes where the defense loses track of him and he can rumble which is just the best when it happens.
Max: The Gophers are a very middle of the pack defensive team in just about every statistical category. Would Iowa be better suited to try to beat them on the ground or through the air?
GoAUpher: Honestly, I'm worried about us stopping the run more than anything. All 3 Big Ten losses have featured our opponent running successfully and while I know Iowa has been struggling in that regard, Akrum Wadley is still capable of doing Akrum Wadley things. I don't like Akrum Wadley doing Akrum Wadley things. He should take a nap on Saturday instead. That said, there is probably room to pass on the Gophers too as we're running a backup safety at CB and are without the best defensive player on the team, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. He keeps showing up on the depth chart but we're also hearing "medical redshirt" used with his name so I'm not optimistic we'll see him again this year.
Max: Finish the sentence: Minnesota will win on Saturday if...
GoAUpher: The offensive line generates ok push in the run game and Demry Croft doesn't make terrible decisions. I'd also expect that Minnesota needs to win the turnover battle in order to get the victory.
Max: Prediction time - who ya got?
GoAUpher: Minnesota because I will never ever predict Iowa to win. Call it 17-14.
Thanks to GoAUpher for his time and insight! Of course, I hope the Hawkeyes throw nine hundred points on your team. For more on all things Minnesota, check out The Daily Gopher and find them on Twitter at @TheDailyGopher. Go Hawks.