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Iowa football look-ahead: Minnesota

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The Hawkeyes and a nice little run against the Gophers

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Iowa
The Gang Gets To Protect Floyd
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s a quirk of the schedule that might prove beneficial for the Iowa football team this season, it might be that they have a bye between the Wisconsin and Minnesota games.

In some aspects, Iowa’s always been lucky to have natural rivals. For as long as the Big Ten exists, they will exist — but they come at a cost.

There’s hardly ever an Iowa-Wisconsin game where someone new isn’t added to the injury report. Having a week here to heal, regroup and mentally relax a little bit could end up paying dividends down the line.

Minnesota is the second game in the Hawkeyes 2018 conference schedule and comes right before Indiana and Maryland, two winnable games. No matter if Iowa beats Wisconsin or not, this stretch of games will very likely determine how the rest of the season will go.

Lose Floyd for the first time in three seasons, right after again falling to the Badgers in a tough game? That’s a recipe for a mid-season slide. Beating Minnesota this season somehow has importance.

A nightmare is an 0-2 start in Big Ten play, something Iowa can’t have happen if they want to be a dark horse Big Ten West contender.

History

Something I didn’t know when I checked this all-time series: In seven games between 1891 and 1909 Iowa scored exactly four points against the Gophers.

Scoring still hasn’t come easy over the past two seasons, but Iowa is riding a three-game win streak against Minnesota and have won five of the past six matchups. All-time the Gophers still hold a 67-47-2 mark, but the gap is closing.

Last year was P.J. Fleck’s first against Iowa and... we didn’t have much in the way of fireworks. Minnesota certainly came out tough, but really weren’t all that impressive against the Hawkeyes.

As I wrote in the rewatch after that particular game:

Even so, this game never had the feeling of a true defensive slugfest. It was more about who could limit the offensive mistakes the most and make a couple big plays when they absolutely had to have them.

Fleck didn’t really impress me last season and it’ll be interesting to see what he does with more of his guys and offense in place this time around. This is an important game for Minnesota as well and absolutely one they can win.

No Gopher coach with any sort of plans to stick around wants to start their career 0-2 to the Hawkeyes. They will be motivated and this will be a game Iowa players will need to keep their head on swivel.

Last season

Minnesota struggled in 2017, finishing the year 5-7 with a 2-7 mark in conference play.

After starting the Big Ten 0-3, the Gophers managed to beat Illinois a week after narrowly falling to Michigan State. Things really didn’t get better after that and Minnesota beat only Nebraska the rest of the year.

Fun fact: Minnesota beat Nebraska 54-21

Even more fun fact: Minnesota lost its final two games to Northwestern and Wisconsin by a combined 70-0

Offense

For starters, the Gophers have a quarterback battle.

Both redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan and true freshman Zack Annexstad are expected to vie for a spot in a contest that likely could run into the season. Fleck is staying with offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, but they’ll need to see improvement in year two of this era of Minnesota football.

The Gophers do bring back one key piece in running back Rodney Smith. Over the past two seasons he’s combined to rush for well over 2,000 yards and remains one of the best backs in the conference.

Iowa held him to 82 yards on 15 carries last season, but there’s really no telling what exactly Minnesota’s offense will look like by Oct. 6. If the Gophers find a serviceable quarterback and its run game (which does have a chance to include Shannon Brooks) with its normally strong receiver group... well, it’s formidable.

Defense

Linebacker Thomas Barber is perhaps the best returning piece here and had a team leading 115 tackles last season.

Outside of that, however? It gets a bit thin. The secondary does return a few pieces in Jacob Huff and Antoine Winfield Jr., which should give Minnesota something at safety, but corner is still a bit of a question.

The Gopher defensive line took a fairly decent sized hit too and it’ll be interesting to see what the staff can do with a bunch of inexperienced players. Fleck and his staff have put together some fairly decent defenses in their career, but this will be a true test.

Against Iowa, in TCF, however, any real defensive matchups go out the window. The Hawkeyes have averaged just 19.1 points in five games at that stadium since it opened in 2009. Iowa is 2-3 in those contests.

Conclusion

Of all the games to predict, this perhaps might be the most difficult.

History tells us that in this series at TCF we’ve had three one-possession games (2010, 2011, 2016), one three possession game (2013) and one massive blowout (2014). Iowa still will struggle to score, however and it could very well come down to how well Stanley executes in an environment he hasn’t faced yet.

It’s not hard to imagine Minnesota starting to figure some things out on both sides of the ball entering game number five. It’s also not hard to imagine Iowa limping into this game with two losses.

I really don’t know. I just need this season to get here.