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Hawkeye Football Opponent Previews: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Can Iowa beat the Fighting P.J. Flecks on a short week after a rivalry game?

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

As we countdown the days and weeks until the beginning of the Iowa football season, we’ll be previewing each of Iowa’s opponents in 2020. While the season may seem far in the distant, we’re currently 10 weeks from our first game week of the year.

Our second entry in our series of previews is Iowa’s Week 3 matchup against the neighbors to the north: the Minnesota Golden Gophers

Minnesota Golden Gophers

2019 Record: 11-2 (7-2), T-1st in Big Ten West

The Fleckoning finally arrived in Minneapolis as P.J. Fleck and his merry band of gilded rodents sprinted to a 9-0 start before coming to Iowa City on a caffeine- and win-induced high. They lost after Iowa racked up three quick touchdowns and could not mount a comeback.

After beating Northwestern they couldn’t seal the deal at home for a trip to Indianapolis and lost to Wisconsin. A bowl win over Auburn had them at 10th in the AP Poll which is their best finish to the season since a Murray Warmath coached them (1962).

Much was made about their schedule last year. Fine. They beat South Dakota State, Fresno State, Georgia Southern, and Purdue by a combined 20 points. But when they were on, they could fill it up quickly and had the third highest scoring offense in the Big Ten.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Key Departures

The Goofers got a lot of well-deserved credit for their troika of wide receivers and they’ll have to replace the most prolific of them in Tyler Johnson. The Buccaneers draft pick accumulated 1318 yards on 86 receptions for 13 touchdowns. He finished with 33 TDs in his career, which tops the career charts for Minnesota (as does his yardage).

Perhaps more importantly, running backs Rodney Smith and and Shannon Brooks. Smith finished with over 1100 yards and second on the career charts there. Considering Minnesota ran over 61% of the time, they’ll need to backfill the 300 carries between those two.

Defensively, the biggest loss is Antoine Winfield, Jr., who was the led the team in both tackles and interceptions. The Phil Parker Honorary Big Ten DB of the Year left early and was also drafted by Tampa Bay. Linebackers, Kamal Martin, Carter Coughlin, and corner back Chris Williamson round out Minnesota’s draft class. Green Bay reached when drafting Martin and that’s the end of my draft analysis.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Key Additions

Fleck is bringing in the 38th ranked class, according to 247sports. Receiver Daniel Jackson and linebacker Itayvion Brown are the highest rated by the service and may challenge for spots departed by draftees.

Also worth noting is JD Spielman wised up and transferred out of Lincoln. He would require a waiver to play immediately next year. The Cake Eater would have a good case for playing immediately as his father is GM of the Minnesota Vikings.

NCAA Football: Georgia Southern at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Key Returners

The biggest key returner is, of course, P.J. Fleck. He probably could have gone somewhere else if he wanted.

After him, QB1 Tanner Morgan is probably going to dictate just how well this team does. The junior completed 66% of his passes last year as he finished with well over 3000 yards (10+ per attempt) and 30 touchdowns. As one would expect with the high completion rate, he did a good job limiting turnovers with just 7 interceptions (2.2% of throws).

Speed demon Rashod Bateman finished with over 20 yards per catch last year (60 for 1219 and 11 touchdowns). He’ll factor in more heavily with the departure of the skill guys mentioned above and it would seem like a waste not to try him on a run or two as he’s currently bare in the department. Chris Autman-Bell joins him out wide with more modest numbers (28/371/5). Mohamed Ibrahim is the leading returning rusher at 604 yards (5.3 per carry) and 7 tuddies.

Daniel Faalele is back and remains giant along the offensive line at 6’9”, 400 lbs.

Defensively, Jordan Howden, Benjamin St-Justen, and Coney Durr return to the secondary. Mariano Sori-Marin is a linebacker who is back. There are some gaps here from a defense which gave up 22.5 a game.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Media Days Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

2020 Preview

The discussion, for better or worse, begins with the schedule. They’ll drop Rutgers and Penn State (2 wins from last year) and add Michigan and at Michigan State. BYU comes to town in their non-conference and figures to be a tricky out.

Yet Minnesota has two things: a coach and a QB. The two can take you pretty far in the game of football and as much fun as it is to rag on PJ, The Fleckoning is here. Perhaps the scariest thing about him is he gets Big Ten football. He is winning games in the trenches with ball control and a strong running game and taking advantage of his skill players when the opportunity presents itself.

10 wins is going to be difficult to replicate, though. If they do, we’ll probably see Morgan make a trip to New York City as a Heisman finalist.

Would I want him to be head coach of Iowa? Probably not. His shtick would wear thin. But in the sports-saturated market of the Twin’s kinda needed. It’s only a matter of time before he beats Iowa.

Iowa v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Iowa/Minnesota Prediction

Fleck has been at Minnesota three years and lost by 7, 17, and 4 points. After the blowout in 2018, he switched defensive coordinators and saw a flip which extended into 2019.

I’m not particularly excited about this game for a couple reasons: 1) it comes inside the three non-conference games I’ve come to expect from a Ferentz team. I just don’t trust Iowa to be conference-ready before the fourth game. 2) It’s on the Friday after the Iowa State game. 3) It’s at Minnesota.

If there’s a season for Fleck to break the streak, this kind of feels like this is it.

Should Iowa win, it feels like it would set the tone for the season as it probably means the defense asserts itself in some form or fashion. Gut says Fleck uses his stout offensive line to wear out a tired Hawkeye front from the Cy-Hawk.

Coinflip, but this one goes to Minnesota: 28-27.