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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Minnesota

Iowa may not be going to Indianapolis this year, but there’s no reason that means the pig has to go back to Minneapolis. 

NCAA Football: Purdue at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

What motivates a football team to play on when its main goals are no longer within reach? While the Iowa Hawkeyes had their sights on a Big Ten West crown and a trip to Indianapolis, a narrow loss to the Wisconsin Badgers has all but put these goals out of reach.

Iowa may not have a conference championship left to play for, but it still has three regular season contests and a bowl game left on its schedule, including two rivalry games with trophies and cross-border bragging rights on the line. The first of the remaining trophy games happens this week, when the Hawkeyes play host to a surprisingly dangerous 9-0 Minnesota squad that shocked both Penn State and the college football world by knocking off the 4th-ranked Nittany Lions one week ago.

If this Minnesota team seems familiar to Hawkeye fans, it may be because it has a lot in common with great Hawkeyes teams of the Ferentz era. The Gophers have surpassed the pundits’ middling expectations of them behind an hot new up-and-coming coach with elite playmakers on both sides of the ball (Iowa in 2002) and won an improbable series of close games against opponents they should have beaten by double digits (Iowa in 2009), all while being plagued by allegations that their undefeated record was built on the back of a weak schedule (Iowa in 2015). Minnesota is the midst of their most successful campaign since Sandy Stephens quarterbacked them to a national title in 1960, but they may be susceptible to a letdown after last week’s emotionally charged victory. Iowa, meanwhile, may find that the prospect of ruining their rival’s undefeated season is just the motivation they need to help them bounce back from last week’s deflating loss.

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

1. Can Iowa slow down the potent Gopher offense?

Minnesota has the most dangerous (healthy) wide receiver duo in the conference in Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, and Thursday’s article on their matchup against Iowa cornerbacks does a great job of outlining just how difficult it will be for Iowa’s defensive backs to limit their explosive plays downfield.

However, the Gopher offense, which averages nearly 40 points per game and is the second highest scoring unit in the Big Ten, is more than just its wide receivers. Quarterback Tanner Morgan wasn’t perfect against Penn State, but his 339-yard, three touchdown performance on 18-20 passes was about as close to perfect as they come, especially when facing one of the top five scoring defenses in the country. Morgan’s otherworldly accuracy was aided not only by the incredible separation his receivers were able to earn downfield, but also from the fantastic protection he received from his offensive line. The Nittany Lions, who have wracked up the sixth most sack yardage in college football, managed only one sack and zero quarterback hurries against Morgan last Saturday, as the Gopher line was able to give their quarterback as clean a pocket as one could hope for.

Iowa may be tempted to sell out on defending the pass, but that’s precisely what P.J. Fleck’s offense is designed to exploit. Sixth-year senior Rodney Smith is having a remarkable comeback season at running back, while Mohammed Ibrahim and Shannon Brooks, both dangerous ball carriers in their own right, provide the Gophers with remarkable depth on the ground. Each of the Gopher running backs weighs in at 210 lbs. or heavier, but all of them are quick enough to burn defenders if they take bad angles to the ball, something Iowa’s freshman starter at middle linebacker did far too often against Wisconsin. If the Hawkeyes become too preoccupied with stopping Morgan, Johnson, and Bateman in the passing game, the Gopher ground game can make them pay for that mistake.

Iowa’s defense has been its saving grace all season long, but the Gophers will provide their toughest test this unit has faced to date. Minnesota has the strength up front and the athleticism at the skill positions to test both the front and back ends of the Hawkeye defense, and can move the ball consistently even if they aren’t generating big plays. Saying that Iowa’s defense needs to play at an elite level for the 2019 Hawkeye squad to beat a top-tier team may seem like a huge understatement, but it’s as accurate as it is obvious.

2. Can the Iowa passing game build off its momentum from the end of the Wisconsin game?

Through two and half quarters, Nate Stanley and the Hawkeye passing attack looked about as inept as it has at any point during the senior quarterback’s time commanding the offense. However, the Iowa coaching staff’s decision to air it out and attack the Badger defense deep starting late in the third quarter completely turned the game around and saw the Hawkeyes mount a furious comeback that almost led to a victory in Camp Randall. With Iowa still struggling to get its running game going (the Hawkeyes average only 3.87 yards per carry, the fourth-worst average in the conference), it may once again fall to Stanley to jumpstart Iowa’s offense if it begins to stall out.

Will Iowa’s coaches be comfortable basing their offensive game plan around Stanley’s rocket arm, or will Iowa continue to live and die by the running game, turning to the vertical passing game only when their backs are against the wall? Iowa’s early pivot to the passing game propelled Iowa to its Outback Bowl victory last season, and the Hawkeyes have certainly leaned on the air attack more this season than they have in years past; Iowa actually ranks 4th in the conference with 33.3 passing attempts per game. Still, pass protection concerns and the coaching staff’s conservative nature has prevented Iowa from really embracing its vertical passing game and taking advantage of players like Ihmir Smith-Marsette and the red-hot Tyrone Tracy and their ability to stretch the defense.

It also remains to be seen whether Iowa can throw effectively against the Gophers even if it wants to. Stanley torched Minnesota for 314 yards and four touchdowns last season, but that game was played without Antoine Winfield Jr. who might be the best safety in college football. The Gophers are tied for second in the nation with fourteen interceptions, have held opposing QBs to an extremely impressive 104.31 quarterback rating, and surrender only 185.7 passing yards per game. The Gophers picked off Penn State’s Sean Clifford three times last week, and if Iowa’s lack of a running game forces Stanley to carry the entire offense, it’s not crazy to imagine him struggling the way he did against Michigan and Penn State or against Wisconsin for 70% of the contest. Stanley is still searching for a big signature win during his senior season, and he will need to perform extremely well against a dangerous Minnesota secondary if he wants to secure one on Saturday.

3. Which team can best capitalize on the errors of their opponents?

Six minutes into last week’s game, Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan had the ball stripped from him by Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa, only for the ball to be recovered by Cedric Lattimore at the Wisconsin 16 yard-line.

Naturally, the Hawkeyes squandered this fantastic field position by going three-and-out and settling for yet another Keith Duncan field goal.

Meanwhile, a turnover off a botched exchange between Stanley and center Tyler Linderbaum resulted in a seven play, 59-yard touchdown drive by the Badgers. While not gifted the same advantageous field position the Hawkeyes were, the Badgers proved more capable of capitalizing on the mistakes of their opponents and turning a promising Hawkeye drive into a Wisconsin touchdown.

Neither Iowa nor Minnesota are particularly mistake-prone teams. Both squads rank in the top five nationally in fewest penalties committed per game, top ten in the fewest number of plays of 30 yards or more allowed, and top 25 in fewest turnovers allowed. In short, neither team is particularly likely to beat themselves this Saturday.

That being said, even the cleanest teams make mistakes, particularly during intense rivalry games in which one team has a division championship and potential playoff berth on the line. Iowa and Minnesota will both be given limited number of opportunities to use their opponent’s mistakes against them, and the team that is best able to capitalize on these infrequent errors will likely be the one who manages to come out on top. Iowa was not that team against Wisconsin last week, but they will need to be on Saturday if they want to beat the Badgers to the punch and have a shot at spoiling Minnesota’s perfect season.

Iowa may not be going to Indianapolis this year, but there’s no reason that means the pig has to go back to Minneapolis.