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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Minnesota

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Alex Padilla will be tasked with winning a rivalry game and beating the co-Big Ten West leader in his first ever collegiate start.

Colorado State v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Iowa and Minnesota each hold a share of first place in the Big Ten West, but the rivalry between the two programs has been one-sided for several years. The Hawkeyes have won six straight games against the Gophers, eight of the last nine meetings in the series, and have not lost a home game to Minnesota since 1999. Not only has Minnesota’s PJ Fleck never beaten the Hawkeyes as a head coach, but his teams have yet to even hold a lead against Iowa.

Whether Iowa can continue its run of dominance against Minnesota depends largely on which versions of both teams show up to Kinnick Stadium tomorrow afternoon. At its best, Minnesota has one of the country’s top defenses and managed to win a difficult road game against Purdue. At its worst, Minnesota is the team that scored 16 combined points in home losses to Bowling Green and Illinois. Similarly, the Hawkeyes have run the gamut of expectations this season: sometimes they look like the #2 team in the country, sometimes a team whose offensive players have never met one another before let alone taken snaps together, sometimes both. Yet with the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy and a potential Big Ten West championship at stake, odds are that both teams will bring their A-games for what promises to be a tightly contested battle.

Here are a few key factors to watch for in tomorrow’s game:

1. Will Alex Padilla become “the guy” for Iowa?

Kirk Ferentz’s decision to bench starting quarterback Spencer Petras against Northwestern was as surprising a move as any made by the coaching staff in several years, but the early results of this controversial call appear promising. 2nd string QB Padilla helped jumpstart a floundering offense and led the Hawkeyes to touchdowns on his first two drives, equaling Iowa’s scoring output from its prior two games. Padilla showed solid mobility in the pocket and accuracy while throwing on the move, a strong enough arm to make difficult passes downfield,

and a willingness to target Iowa’s dynamic young wide receivers Keagan Johnson

and Arland Bruce IV.

Whether Padilla can replicate and improve on this performance will depend on three factors. First: will Kirk Ferentz had Padilla the keys to the offense? Padilla is listed atop this week’s depth chart, though Petras could recover from his shoulder injury in time to make a push to regain his starting job. If Petras is available on Saturday, will Ferentz be tempted to start the veteran quarterback or to pull Padilla if the offense struggles early?

The second factor that could determine Padilla’s success is how he responds to playing under wildly different circumstances this week. Padilla was thrown into the fire against Northwestern but will have the luxury of a full week of first team reps in preparation for the Minnesota game which could improve his confidence and open up a greater percentage of the playbook to his disposal. However, Padilla must now face off against a defense that has studied film of him as opposed to one that prepared all week to play the largely stationary Spencer Petras. It’s noteworthy that Iowa’s offense stalled out considerably during the second half against Northwestern and that the majority of Padilla’s passing yardage (127 yards of 172) came before halftime. Can Minnesota replicate Northwestern’s second half defensive success against Iowa having had a week to prepare for Padilla?

Finally, it remains to be seen how Padilla will fare against a defense more formidable than Northwestern’s. While the Wildcats rank 68th in scoring defense and 90th in total defense, Minnesota ranks 15th in scoring defense and 7th in total defense, surrendering only 18.3 points and 298.9 yards per game. The Gophers have a solid pass defense that is allowing only 195.8 yards to opposing quarterbacks through the air, and has two excellent edge rushers on the defensive line in Boye Mafe (six sacks) and Thomas Rush (5.5 sacks) who can capitalize on Iowa’s poor pass protection and the expected absence of starting left tackle Mason Richman. If Padilla wants to permanently steal the starting job from Petras, he will have to overcome a far better defense that the one he faced last Saturday.

A quarterback change is not the sole answer to Iowa’s offensive problems, and perhaps Petras will ultimately reemerge and prove why he deserves to remain the starter. But if Padilla is able to assert himself as Iowa’s undisputed QB1 against Minnesota, the Hawkeyes have an excellent chance to retain Floyd for another year.

2. Can Iowa’s running game build on last week’s strong performance?

After struggling on the ground for much of the season, Iowa’s rushing attack finally emerged as a consistent force against Northwestern. The Hawkeyes totaled 185 yards and two rushing touchdowns on 4.9 yards per carry, and Tyler Goodson capitalized on vastly improved blocking up front to gallop for 141 yards and a TD on 6.7 yards per carry.

However, Minnesota’s run defense presents a substantially tougher challenge than Northwestern’s did. While the Wildcats frequently allowed Iowa’s linemen to create a tremendous push up front (as evidenced in this clip from Goodson’s touchdown run),

Minnesota boasts a stout defensive line that has excelled at bottling up opposing running backs all season. The Gophers are holding opponents to only 103.11 rushing yards per game (the 14th fewest in the nation) and 3.45 yards per carry. Given Iowa’s considerable challenges running the ball this year and the fact that they will be down a starting offensive lineman, Iowa’s rushing success against Northwestern could prove to be a one-off.

However, Minnesota’s rushing defense has fared far worse against Big Ten opponents than its impressive statistics suggest. The Gophers have allowed three Big Ten running backs to rush for 100+ yards this season and came only a few yards shy of allowing a fourth against Purdue, the conference’s worst rushing offense. Big Ten teams are averaging 136.83 yards on the ground on 4.25 yards per carry, making Minnesota appear more like a middle of the pack rushing defense than one of the nation’s best. If Iowa’s offensive line can minimize the number of tackles for loss allowed, Goodson and the Hawkeye rushing attack may have opportunities to find success on Saturday.

3. Can Minnesota’s offensive line take over the game?

The Gophers’ best chance to control the game rests with its running attack, as Tanner Morgan (1357 passing yards, 6 touchdowns, 7 interceptions) has not been the same player since losing his collection of elite wide receivers to the NFL. Minnesota is averaging 207.33 rushing yards per game, which is truly remarkable given that the team has lost three of its top running backs to injury on the season.

While freshmen Mar’Keise Irving and Ky Thomas have done an admirable job spelling the injured Mohamed Ibrahim, Trey Potts, and Bryce Williams, much of the credit for Minnesota’s success on the ground is owed to its offensive line. The Gophers have a combined 250 starts among the offensive linemen on their roster and redshirt senior Connor Olson has amazingly started every game of the PJ Fleck era. Football Outsiders found that Minnesota has a Stuff Rate (which measures the percentage of running back carries stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage) of only 12.5%, the eighth best in football (for comparison, Iowa’s 24.8% stuff rate is the nation’s second worst).

While the Hawkeye run defense has been excellent this season and has held opponents to only 98.67 yards per game, there is some concern that the sheer size and strength of the Gopher line (its top six lineman have an average size of 6’5” and 336 lbs.) could overpower an Iowa defensive line that features players like Joe Evans and Lukas VanNess who are undersized for their position. Similarly, Minnesota’s line has proven excellent at blocking run/pass option plays this year, and Iowa’s back seven will need to be disciplined and tackle far better than they did against Northwestern for the Hawkeyes to shut down the Gopher running game.

If Minnesota’s front five can dominate the line of scrimmage and help the Gophers sustain drives, the Hawkeyes could be in for a difficult matchup. However, if Iowa manages to neutralize Minnesota’s run game and force Tanner Morgan to attack the defense with his arm, the Hawkeyes should be in good shape, as the Gophers are 0-2 in games in which Morgan has thrown 25+ passes this season.