Neither Iowa nor its upcoming opponent the Minnesota Gophers are sitting where fans expected they would be three games into the 2020 season. Iowa’s Friday night road game against the Gophers was circled as a marquee matchup as soon as it was announced and was expected to involve two teams in contention for the Big Ten West. Now, with Iowa and Minnesota each sitting at 1-2 on the season, this game will provide the winner with an opportunity to build off of their respective blowout victories last week while putting the loser’s season in serious jeopardy.
Iowa is riding a five game winning streak against the Gophers and has posted an even more lopsided record against Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck which dates back to Kirk Ferentz’s first even win at Iowa in a game played during Fleck’s freshman year of college. Despite the Hawkeyes’ run of dominance against the Gophers, however, the series has been extremely competitive throughout the years, and a Hawkeye victory tonight would mean that each team has captured the Floyd of Rosedale trophy an equal number of times. This year’s contest has been circled on Minnesota’s calendar since Iowa’s upset 23-19 victory last season however, so the Hawkeyes will need to bring their A-game to escape Minneapolis with a win.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in tonight’s game:
1. Can Iowa hold Minnesota’s offensive stars in check?
The Gopher offense has been the undisputed strength of Minnesota’s team thus far in the 2020 season, and the overwhelming majority of the credit for this high-powered attack goes to two players: running back Mohamed Ibrahim and wide receiver Rashod Bateman. Ibrahim has arguably been the best running back in the country over the past three weeks, averaging more yards per game on the ground than any running back in college football (190.3) and scoring a remarkable ten touchdowns. Ibrahim’s last game against Illinois saw the talented junior rush for 224 yards and four touchdowns, displaying a deadly combination of power and shiftiness as well as excellent vision.
Meanwhile, Bateman has been the engine driving the Gopher passing attack after the departure of Tyler Johnson to the NFL. Bateman’s 302 receiving yards account for more than half of Minnesota’s total passing offense, and his lethal reputation as a deep threat opens up the Gopher offense considerably even when he isn’t targeted. Bateman is a remarkably tough cover for even the best cornerbacks, as long 6-2 frame and incredible hands give him a massive catch radius that allows him to pull down some truly spectacular grabs.
Is there anything Rashod Bateman can’t catch? pic.twitter.com/I2i6DKmTqS— Dustin Schutte (@SchutteCFB) September 28, 2019
Iowa’s defense will have a tall task trying to contain these two weapons, and it will likely require a team effort for the Hawkeyes to keep them in check. Bateman will be a difficult cover for any of Iowa’s cornerbacks without regular safety help, and the twenty-two missed tackles Ibrahim has forced already this season show that he is quite capable of beating a single defender in space. However, the job of the Iowa defense will become much easier if they can corral Ibrahim and Bateman. Tanner Morgan was one of the conference’s best quarterbacks last season but has been unremarkable so far in 2020, particularly when targeting receivers other than Bateman. Minnesota lacks the depth of skill player talent they boasted last season, so if Iowa can force the Gopher players not named Ibrahim or Bateman to beat them, they should be in decent shape.
2. Can Iowa capitalize on Minnesota’s weakness against the run?
In his first game as Iowa’s starting running back, Tyler Goodson repeatedly gouged the Gophers on the ground, averaging 7.2 yards per rush and scoring a first quarter touchdown run which saw the gifted freshman break three tackles on his way to the end zone.
If Minnesota’s defense has found a way to slow Goodson down this season, they’ve certainly kept it hidden through the first three games. The rushing statistics put up by Minnesota’s opponents this season have been downright embarrassing, as the Gophers have allowed a Big Ten-leading 239.33 rushing yards per game, giving up a whopping 7.33 yards on every carry by an opponent, the second highest total allowed among all college football teams. Minnesota’s problems start up front; the Gopher linebackers have been absolute liabilities thus far and while Boye Mafe has excelled as a pass rusher from his defensive end spot, he and his running mates on the defensive line have been consistently pushed around by opposing linemen.
Iowa’s offense found its rhythm again by recommitting to the running game against Michigan State, and there’s no reason to suspect the Hawkeyes will deviate from that formula against the Gophers. Goodson had his best game of the season last week, rushing for two touchdowns and one 71-yard run that reminded defenses why he is one of the most explosive running backs in college football.
However, Iowa’s strength as a running team goes beyond its star leading man. Iowa’s run blocking against Michigan State with superb, particularly from sophomore center Tyler Linderbaum who was the highest ranked center in college football last week according to Pro Football Focus. Meanwhile, Iowa’s seamless integration of jet sweeps into its running package forces opposing to defenders to account for not only the running back, but one of several speedy wide receivers every time one of them goes in motion. Given the difficulty Minnesota’s linebackers have had with getting out of position and taking poor angles to the ball carrier, Iowa’s motion game could wreak havoc on the Gopher run defense if properly deployed in tonight’s contest, especially with Ihmir Smith-Marsette back from suspension.
3. Can Iowa’s defensive line be a disruptive force?
Iowa’s defensive line has improved dramatically each week in 2020, going from a liability in the Hawkeyes’ opener against Purdue to the driver of a stellar defensive performance against Michigan State. Daviyon Nixon is leading the conference with six tackles for loss and has recorded more tackles (21) than any other defensive lineman in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, Iowa’s defensive ends joined Nixon as disruptive forces on the outside last week, with Chauncey Golston, Zach VanValkenburg, and Joe Evans each making their presence felt over the course of the game.
Another strong week from the Iowa defensive line could make things very difficult for the Gophers. Minnesota’s offensive line has been stellar in blocking for the run this season but has shown more vulnerabilities in pass protection, surrendering seven sacks through three games. The Gophers are particularly susceptible to pressure on the right side of the line, where presumptive starters Daniel Faalele and Curtis Dunlap have yet to play a snap so far this year. Iowa’s defensive line was one of the biggest contributing factors to the Hawkeye upset of the Gophers last season and was responsible for five of Iowa’s six sacks over the course of the game. If the Hawkeye front four can pressure Tanner Morgan and be disruptive enough to make things more difficult for Ibrahim and his road-grating offensive line, Iowa will have a good chance to make it six straight against its rivals to the North.