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Matchup to Watch: Zack Annexstad vs. Iowa’s Secondary

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Is he bad? Is he good? We probably don’t know yet because he is young.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Much was made in P.J. Fleck’s press conference earlier this season, his first as head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. His team is undergoing a true youth movement with over 50% of the players on their roster being freshmen. The age of this roster isn’t clearer than the quarterback room, as they have only two: redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan and walk-on freshman Zack Annexstad.

During fall camp, Annexstad found himself in pole position and Fleck named him as the starter without a “short leash.” He enrolled in the spring of 2018 after playing with fellow freshman Big Ten QB, Art Sitkowski, at Florida’s IMG Academy. He had a modest stat line with a 54.7% completion percentage and 14 touchdowns and six interceptions in his two years there. He’s the second true freshman walk-on to start week 1 for an FBS school; Baker Mayfield was the first.

That is where the comparison’s end, though. Mayfield was an electrifying dual threat with exceptional precision in a pass-happy offense during his first year at Texas Tech. Annexstad is a pro-style QB with limited accuracy and escapability, completing 52.3% of his passes and rushing (getting sacked) for -49 yards.

He played well enough through the non-conference slate - tallying four of his five touchdowns and no interceptions in three games against Group of 5 opponents (all wins). Against Maryland, he found himself regularly struggling with their team speed and threw two interceptions. His yards/attempt peaked against Miami (OH) at 7.1.

What sticks out with those stats is he simply does not have much time to throw the ball, either by choice or lack of execution. The one exception, is Minnesota’s willingness to let it rip along the sidelines as he completed three or four against Maryland, garbage time notwithstanding.

However, those highlights were few and far between, as he completed only 14 passes. He had several poor throws, most notably the interceptions, and both highlight the interplay between the defensive line and the secondary.

Though this throw comes in garbage time, the pressure applied by Maryland’s defense, man coverage across the board, allowed the Terrapins line to push Annexstad from the pocket. While the fourth down throw is largely inconsequential, it was the secondary who forced him to extend the play, resulting in an interception.

The second pick, though it came from a linebacker, is perhaps more indicative of Iowa’s defensive style and how they might react to Minnesota’s passing game. It is bread-and-butter RPO action and something the Golden Gophers will go to often. Though it should be an easy read/throw, it is not there with consistency yet for Annexstad, as he does not regularly put the ball where it needs to be. Since it is his only read, Iowa has the opportunity to pounce on it. The most likely candidate? Amani Hooker, who might find himself in the box to stop the run but able to react to an underthrow.

There are some questions out wide for the Hawkeyes, as Matt Hankins is coming off an injury and Michael Ojemudia had an up-and-down performance against Wisconsin. Where they will need to excel is two-fold: first, it will be to prevent the easy throws. Does Parker show more press coverage to limit early reads for Annexstad? Doing so could give Iowa’s defensive line the split second they need to get to the QB.

If Iowa does, in fact, press more than usual out wide, it’ll be imperative they limit the over-the-top opportunities Annexstad has shown himself willing to throw. Wisconsin beat Iowa on their go-ahead drive on these types of throws and Minnesota, to their credit, has receivers who can create space and catch balls in tight quarters. If Ojemudia proves to be more down than up or Hankins is not recovered enough, the boat-rowers can take advantage.

Despite ranking in the top 10 of scoring defense, Iowa is doing it without turning opponents over. Iowa’s notched only two interceptions so far - one on a bad deep ball over the middle and the above - and three fumble recoveries. Five is the least they’ve had through four games since 2014. In fact, it’s the least turnovers Iowa’s forced through four games since 2000 (via sports-reference.com/cfb).

Minnesota is the perfect opponent to turn it around in that respect. With their young QB, they are doing everything in their power to make the game as simple as possible by scheming quick decisions. The best way to counteract that is to take away the first option with added heat from Iowa’s cornerbacks. The longer it takes Annexstad to get rid of the ball, the higher likelihood he makes a mistake, the better chance Iowa has to win.