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2021 opponent preview: Minnesota Golden Gophers

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The Fightin’ PJ Flecks couldn’t back up their surprise 2019 season but return key components which may make them a tricky out

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

Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota.

A team which hates Iowa so much they proclaim it at like every game. It’s a chant unbecoming of a 7-time national champion (last in 1960 but who’s counting) but we’ll let them have it...I guess.

Ever since 2014’s empty trophy case, the Hawks have beaten the Minnesota Golden Gophers, though four of the six Ws have been single-possession affairs. The highlight of the streak for me is 2015’s blackout game which came on the heels of the morning’s Grapple on the Gridiron. I won’t hold it against you if Kirk Ferentz’s timeouts last year elevates the 35-7 victory. Blowouts against Minnesota are always fun.

Anyways, PJ Fleck guided the Goofers to a 3-4 record last season after an impressive 2019 campaign where they finished 11-2. Part of the reason they struggled last season was the loss of a couple offensive linemen to injury who will be back this season. They also saw 5 guys get drafted in 2020, the most in a long time* according to Phil Steele.

* since the draft went to 7 rounds in 1994

They return 20 starters, though, and could be formidable if things break the right way for them. More than any team, they are built on gaining a lead then squeezing the air out of the ball with a strong run game an efficient passing attack. They’ve been in the top 10 each of the last two seasons in time of possession but were unable to maintain the efficiency (on both sides of the ball) of 2019 into 2020.

Minnesota schedule ahead of Iowa

9/2: v. Ohio State (Thursday)
9/11: v. Miami (OH)
9/18: @ Colorado
9/25: v. Bowling Green
10/2: @ Purdue
10/9: BYE
10/16: v. Nebraska
10/23: v. Maryland
10/30: @ Northwestern
11/6: v. Illinois

Minnesota has not been afraid to travel west in their non-conference scheduling as they’ve been to Fresno State, Oregon State, and now Colorado as part of home-and-home arrangements since 2017. Other than the early OSU game, they’ll have a manageable schedule as their three other most difficult games are the ones at the end of their schedule: at Iowa, at Indiana, and Wisconsin. And hey, maybe they catch a break with OSU trying to start a QB who’d be a HS senior if he didn’t reclassify into this recruiting class.

Three guys

Mohamed Ibrahim (RB, 5’10”, 210 lbs, RS Sr): The reigning Big Ten running back of the year lapped the field by posting more rushing yards in 6 games than Trey Sermon, the #2 rusher, accumulated in 8. He led the Gophers in rushing in 2018, as well, before working through an injury in 2019 as Rodney Smith served as their primary back.

What is impressive about Ibrahim is he seems to do his work on the back of vision and balance without being especially fast or powerful. He’s especially potent around the goal line and tied for fifth in the nation with 15 rushing touchdowns.

Tanner Morgan (QB, 6’2”, 215 lbs, RS Sr): In 2019, Morgan was on a season-long heater with a 66% completion percentage, 30 touchdowns, and just 7 interceptions. He came down to earth in 7 games last season, which resembled his freshman season. Combining those two seasons, he completed 58% and tossed a combined 16 TDs to 11 INTs. So the question becomes: Which Morgan is the real Tanner?

In watching his prior season’s highlights, it’s clear he was the beneficiary of some great wide receiver play in Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman, and Chris Autmen-Bell. While just Autmen-Bell is still on the roster, Minnesota does a good job enabling open throws with play action passes over the top. Morgan will feign runs but is much more of a pocket passer, with the last two seasons in the red from a rushing yards perspective.

In all likelihood, they will probably go as their passing game goes and that starts with Morgan.

Nyles Pinckney (DL, 6’1”, 290 lbs, Grad): The sixth-year lineman from Clemson featured in each of his four non-redshirt seasons for the Tigers. He totaled 98 tackles, 13.5 for loss, across those 55 games. He immediately fills a void for a Gopher defense who yielded a jarring 6.3 rushing yards per game.

Often slotting inside, Pinckney demonstrates requisite strength alongside some fleet feet despite his wide frame. If he can play Tyler Linderbaum to a draw, it would go a long way to giving Minnesota a chance to come away with the W.

Assorted Commentary

Who can control the lines of scrimmage?

For both teams, the path for a victory runs through their ability to run the ball. In five of the last six matchups, the Hawkeyes have won the battle of yards/carry (2018’s blowout was the only “loss”). Adding to Iowa’s dominance in the trenches, they have gotten more sacks in every game since the 2015 one and have out-sacked Minnesota 22-6 over that timeframe.

So if Minnesota is going to get the W, they’ll need to flip the script along the lines.

When does a rivalry stop being a rivalry?

Even though Iowa has won six straight, they’re still 12 back in the all-time series. So it never ends.

Sadly, “Who hates Minnesota? We hate Minnesota!” doesn’t roll of the tongue.