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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Minnesota

Iowa’s first road test of the season comes against its longest-running foe

Wisconsin v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Another week, another rivalry game. This time the Iowa Hawkeyes are preparing for their first venture from the safe confines of Kinnick Stadium to take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers with the best trophy in college football on the line. The Hawkeyes and Gophers enter the Floyd of Rosedale game with identical records (3-1), similar profiles (strong defenses and inconsistent offenses), and both coming off a bye week in which they had time to process a frustrating early season loss to a conference foe.

Iowa holds the edge over Minnesota during the past decade having won seven of the last ten matchups (including three straight wins), but the Hawkeyes have struggled to find decisive victories against the Gophers in recent years. Iowa edged out Minnesota by only a touchdown in each of the last two seasons, and even the 2015 Hawkeye squad, one of the best teams of the Ferentz era, could only muster a five-point victory against a 6-7 Gophers team at home. The Hawkeyes have also been known to deliver some lifeless road performances against Minnesota in recent memory having lost three of their last five road games in the series, including consecutive maddening defeats at the hands of 3-9 Gopher teams in 2010 and 2011. Minnesota’s PJ Fleck is a high-energy coach and a supremely gifted motivator, so one expects his players will be dialed in on Saturday and ready to put their two weeks’ worth of preparation into action against their hated rival. Iowa will need to bring similar levels of energy to this game to escape Minnesota with a win.

Here are a few key factors to watch heading into this weekend’s game:

1. Can Iowa establish dominance in the run game?

It’s no secret that finding success running the football is an essential component of Iowa’s offensive game plan on any given week and doing so will be particularly important against Minnesota. Maryland absolutely abused the Gopher defense on the ground in their victory over Minnesota two weeks ago, accumulating four touchdowns and 315 rushing yards with an average of 8.5 per carry and busting off runs of 81 and 64 yards over the course of the game.

On the flip side, the Gophers pass defense has been superb through four games. Minnes ranks among the top-twenty teams in defensive pass efficiency, have a fantastic pass rusher in junior linebacker Carter Coughlin, and boast a talented stable of defensive backs led by Terell Smith and Antonio Shenault who are capable of playing at a high level even after the season-ending injury to standout safety Antoine Winfield Jr. Minnesota has averaged an interception per game and now finds itself facing off against a quarterback that has thrown a pick in three of his first four contests this season. If the Gopher pass rush is able to dependably apply pressure to Stanley, the Hawkeyes may once again find themselves struggling to move the ball through the air with consistency.

The return of Ivory Kelly-Martin provided a spark to the Hawkeye running game against Wisconsin and allowed Iowa to use more physical, between-the-tackle runners like Toren Young and Mekhi Sargent as thunder to Kelly-Martin’s lightning. Having been given two weeks to observe the weaknesses in Minnesota’s defense, it’s likely that Brian Ferentz and offensive line coach Tim Polasek have emphasized the need for the Hawkeye line to dominate the line of scrimmage and give Iowa’s three-headed-monster at running back an opportunity to take over the game. Iowa’s running backs against Minnesota’s veteran linebacking corps of Coughlin, Thomas Barber, and Blake Cashman will certainly be a matchup worth watching on Saturday and may go a long way to determining the success of the Hawkeye offense.

2. Can Iowa exploit Minnesota’s youth?

If there is any truth in the oft-repeated saying that, “the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow,” Minnesota’s football team must be overdosing on leadership these days. The Gophers have the youngest team in Division 1 football with nearly 60 freshmen, none of whom are more visible than their true freshman walk-on quarterback Zack Annexstad, who capitalized on Minnesota’s gaping hole at quarterback by winning the starting job in fall camp. Meanwhile, injuries to veteran running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks have left fellow freshmen Bryce Williams and Mohamed Ibrahim to serve as the Gophers’ primary ball carriers in 2018.

While Minnesota’s young offensive contributors have certainly shown flashes of potential in the early stage of the season, the Gophers have yet to face a defense even comparable to Iowa’s level of experience and talent. Annexstad struggles with accuracy having completed only 52% of his passes through four games and is playing behind an offensive line that surrendered four sacks against Maryland. Iowa’s depth and experience on the defensive line and athleticism in its defensive back seven have the potential to overwhelm the young quarterback and force him to make costly mistakes. Similarly, while a healthy one-two punch of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks would pose a serious problem for Iowa’s young starters at linebacker this week in Barrington Wade and Djimon Colbert, Iowa’s OLBs stand a much better chance at containing Minnesota’s talented but inexperienced duo of freshmen running backs.

Youth doesn’t necessarily correlate with poor performance, and teams who underestimate the talent of the young players littered throughout Minnesota’s offensive and defensive two-deeps do so at their own peril. But young players are certainly more susceptible to making mistakes when faced with complex defensive and offensive looks, and Iowa’s bye week gave the coaching staff plenty of time to develop and implement new looks that can throw Minnesota’s freshmen for a loop. Iowa’s coaching staff is hardly known for being schematically innovative, but even small changes like employing unexpected tight end or wide receiver shifts or showing unfamiliar blitz packages during the defensive pre-snap could go a long way towards confusing Minnesota’s young talent. If Iowa can capitalize on the inevitable mistakes made by Annexstad and his fellow new-comers and force them into situations that take them out of their comfort zones and make such mistakes more likely to occur, the Hawkeyes can gain a significant advantage in the fight for Floyd of Rosedale.

3. Is Iowa ready to play on the road?

Iowa’s 2018 football schedule may be one of their strangest in recent memory. After playing their first four games at home, the Hawkeyes will go on the road for four of their next five matchups, including this weekend at Minnesota. While TCF Bank Stadium is hardly the most intimidating environment the Hawkeyes will play in this year, the Hawkeyes’ first foray into hostile territory still carries plenty of cause for concern. Minnesota isn’t the only team relying on young players for serious contributions this weekend, and Iowa’s newcomers have developed a rhythm through four games that will be seriously disrupted by being thrown behind enemy lines amidst a contentious century-old rivalry. Iowa certainly has a talent advantage over the Gophers, particularly in light of the significant injuries to Smith, Brooks, and Winfield Jr. However, any lack of focus, discipline, or execution on the part of the Hawkeyes could result in them falling back into a situation that the program knows all to well; getting stuck in a dogfight against an inferior Minnesota team in which the underdog is one or two big plays away from pulling the upset.