Continuing on with our weekly look at Iowa’s 2017 football opponents, it’s time to look at the team that will round out the month of October for the Hawkeyes: the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Minnesota overcame some off-field distractions to finish 9-4 in 2016, but the on-field success was not enough to save head coach Tracy Claeys’ job. Let’s take a look.
Given recent history, a 9-4 finish would be considered a successful season as far as Minnesota football is concerned. Unfortunately, an off-field incident and the way it was dealt with by both the coaching staff and the administration overshadowed what took place on the field.
The Gophers lost to arguably the best four teams on their schedule a season ago: Penn State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Their best win was a 31-17 victory over Northwestern. That simply wasn’t good enough to save the jobs of Tracy Claeys and his staff, leading to the splashiest college football coaching hire this offseason.
Who did they lose?
After what seemed like a decade-long collegiate career, quarterback Mitch Leidner has finally moved on. He was never elite, but he always brought confidence and leadership to the Gopher huddle. His stability will be missed, as will the dependability of leading receiver Drew Wolitarsky. He caught 66 passes for 860 yards and five scores a season ago. They also lost the Epke brothers on the defensive line — two of the better defenders in the Big Ten during their time in the Twin Cities.
Who do they return?
The strength of this team will be the four starting offensive lineman they bring back. That group will be blocking for one of the best running back duos in the conference in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Smith topped 1,100 yards last season and punched it into the endzone 16 times, while Brooks ran for 650 yards and five scores.
On defense, safety Antoine Winfield returns to lead a fairly depleted secondary, while Gaelin Elmore and Steven Richardson look to be the top returners on the defensive line. Richardson had seven sacks in 2016.
Why should Iowa be worried?
From a pure talent standpoint, I’m not sure Minnesota is that much worse than Iowa — if at all. Add in the energy and confidence that new head coach P.J. Fleck brings to the table, and you’re looking at a team that will be fired up each and every week -- regardless of the opponent. Additionally, that experienced offensive line and solid running back tandem should be cause for concern, as Fleck had his Western Michigan squad peeling off over 228 yards per game on the ground. He knows how to run the ball, and he’ll have the horses to do it an an elite level.
Why should Iowa not be worried?
Just like the Hawkeyes, the Gophers are working in a new starting quarterback without any obvious, dependable receiving targets. When the Hawkeyes have the ball, they’ll face a linebacking corps and secondary with plenty of question marks and not much experience.
Key player for Minnesota
Steven Richardson — His ability to penetrate into the backfield, force Iowa’s rushing attack outside and allow his linebackers to use the sidelines as a 12th defender will be key. He’ll also need consistent pocket penetration on obvious passing downs.
Key play for Iowa
Noah Fant — Many are expecting the sophomore tight end to have a breakout year, and this is one of the games when his skill set could be a huge asset. His size and athletic ability should make him a matchup problem for Minnesota’s linebackers and defensive backs. It’ll be a rare case where Iowa might actually be able to win a game by throwing the ball.