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The Butcher’s Word: Minnesota Gophers

The Hawkeyes and Gophers have big time implications on Saturday.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Iowa
Will this be the year for PJ Fleck?
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Iowa Hawkeyes are in an unthinkable position - they’ve gone from the Big Ten West cellar to tied for tops in the division and two wins away from a likely return trip to Indianapolis. But now they face off with the Minnesota Golden Gophers for pride, 98 pounds of pig trophy and a spot atop the West tables.

In the words of the wise and sage like Big Tom Callahan, you can get a good look at a t-bone by sticking your head up a bull’s rear end, but wouldn’t you rather take the butcher’s word for it?

So just like every other week (unless, of course, our cohorts at other SB Nation sites don’t get back to us..), we’re taking the butcher’s word for it and getting the inside details on Minnesota from our friends over at GopherHole. We were joined this week by Noel Thompson to talk about this weekend’s matchup.

Here’s a look at our conversation.

BHGP: Let’s start big picture. PJ Fleck came to Minnesota with a lot of energy. That culminated three seasons ago with an 11-2 finish and a tie for first place in the Big Ten West. But he finds himself facing a rival he’s yet to beat in five seasons and at exactly .500 in the Big Ten. What’s the general view of his performance at the helm from Gopher fans and how would you evaluate the season to-date vs preseason expectations.

GH: P.J. Fleck is well received and very well liked around the state of Minnesota. While his style and personality aren’t for everybody, you really can’t argue with the fact that he has turned the program in the right direction. In his first five seasons, he is already sixth in program history in overall and Big Ten wins. Fleck’s.603 win percentage ranks third among the 11 Minnesota coaches who have coached at least 45 games. He is only one of two coaches to record nine or more wins in a season twice. While he has won Paul Bunyan’s axe twice in Wisconsin, nobody needs to tell him that he hasn’t beaten Iowa yet.

Before the season, I said that anything but a top-two finish in the division would be a disappointing season for Minnesota. I had this game as the deciding factor in who would win the division. While that prediction could still be true, I would say the season hasn’t exactly gone the way Gophers fans expected. The home loss to Purdue still stings and could have made a major difference in the standings at this time. The inconsistency at the wide receiver position has been disappointing. Losing leading receiver Chris Autman-Bell left a huge void in the passing game. While the season is far from a disaster at the moment, what the Gophers do in the next two games against their main rivals will rightfully leave an impression. The last time Minnesota beat Iowa and Wisconsin in the same season was 1990.

BHGP: On the offensive side of the ball, let’s start at quarterback. Starter Tanner Morgan was knocked out of the loss to Illinois and missed the loss to Penn State. He’s also missed the last two weeks. What’s his status entering Saturday and how different does the Gopher offense look with backup Athan Kaliakmanis under center?

GH: Tanner took a pretty big hit at the end of the first half of the Nebraska game. While it hasn’t been confirmed by the team (Fleck rarely shares specific injury news), it is assumed that Tanner received a concussion. If true, this would be his second concussion in a month. Given the severity of concussions, I don’t see Minnesota rushing Tanner back into action anytime soon. I would be surprised if Tanner starts this weekend against Iowa.

Knowing this was the last year with Tanner Morgan under center, Gopher fans have been eagerly waiting to see the four star recruit from Illinois, who has been nicknamed the “Greek Rifle.” Athan has a stronger arm and is more athletic and mobile than Tanner. He has the ability to sling it downfield and extend plays with his feet. He just doesn’t have Tanner’s experience. That showed last week against Northwestern. His timing was a little off, which led to him missing some routine throws. With Athan under center, I think the offense has the potential to become more dangerous given his big arm and athleticism. However, because there will be growing pains, it is possible that more mistakes will be made.

What helps everybody sleep at night is that the Minnesota offensive line is led by pre-season All-American center John Michael Schmitz, who is currently one of the highest rated offensive linemen in the nation and the highest-rated center.

BHGP: In the running game, Mo Ibrahim is an absolute superstar, rushing for over 100 yards and finding his way into the endzone in every game he’s played this season. However, in Minnesota’s three losses Ibrahim was absent for one (Purdue), carried the ball a season-low 15 times in another (Illinois) and had a season-low 102 rushing yards on his lowest YPC (3.4) in the third (Penn State). It’s clear that taking the Gophers out of what they want to do in the ground game is key to winning, so how have those three teams been able to do that and where have other opponents failed?

GH: Controlling the line of scrimmage and forcing Minnesota to convert in the passing game

It’s no secret that Minnesota loves to run the ball. Outside of the service academies, nobody has loved to run the ball more than Minnesota in the last few years. The Gophers averaged 221 yards per game on the ground (2nd in the Big Ten), and 182 yards per game (12th in the Big Ten) in the air.

This forces teams to load the box and dare Minnesota to throw. In all three losses, Minnesota struggled to convert anything in the passing game.

The inconsistency at the wide receiver position has been a major disappointment this season. Losing your most proven receiver, Chris Autman-Bell, in non-conference play hurt the Gophers greatly.

The receivers had two major drops in the Purdue game (one in the end zone that led to an interception). Facing Illinois, nothing went right as Tanner threw for 21 yards. Penn State was a test for the Gophers, who were forced to start a redshirt freshman at quarterback in the White Out game.

I think the Nebraska/Minnesota game is a good example to use. The Huskers loaded the box, got pressure on the QB, and dared Minnesota to throw. The receivers had a hard time getting open, and when they did, they couldn’t catch anything.

With the loaded box and no passing game, the Gophers were down 10-0 at halftime, with Mo Ibrahim only having 18 yards.

The passing game finally made plays in the second half; receivers got open and caught the ball. Even with the passing game being average, it opened up lanes for Ibrahim to run for over 100 yards. The Gophers don’t need to air raid it, but they can make routine plays in the passing game. They tend to win games.

BHGP: I suppose we have to talk about Iowa’s offense, or whatever we want to call it these days. It’s been not good all year, but really what has been striking is how it has been OK against not great defenses and really abysmal against good to great defenses. All four of Iowa’s losses have come at the hands of top-10 total defenses. Minnesota has one of those. How have the Gophers been successful on the defensive side of the ball this season, what should Hawkeye fans know about the scheme and how to you expect them to approach this Iowa offense on Saturday?

GH: Depth, experience, and speed.

Fleck finally has a roster where there aren’t any glaring weaknesses depth-wise.

The defense is under the direction of Joe Rossi. who was just named a finalist for the 2022 Broyles Award, which goes to CFB’s top assistant head coach.

What makes the Gopher defense effective is that they play together and they play fast, they swarm to the ball. Rossi has been quoted as saying that he doesn’t necessarily prefer one scheme over another, he wants a defense that plays to the strengths of the players. When you put a player in a position where they can use their strengths, they can go out with a clear mind. Players with clear minds play faster. The focus of the defense is to limit explosive plays and control the line of scrimmage, which has been the recipe for success for the Gophers defense this year.

The defense is led by senior linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin, who leads the team with 69 tackles, and safety Tyler Nubin, who has four interceptions and 49 tackles. I would watch out for Jah Joyner, who has been on fire lately as a pass rusher.

I actually think the Gophers’ defense will use the same strategy as Iowa’s defense. Control the line of scrimmage, get pressure on the quarterback, and force Iowa to throw. When Petras is under pressure, his competition percentage drops significantly. You have to limit Kaleb Johnson, who has been playing great in the last few games.

BHGP: OK, prediction time. Our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook have this one as Minnesota -3 with an over/under at what should be a laughable 32.5, but really seems quite reasonable when you consider these two defenses. How do you see this one playing out and what’s your final score prediction?

GH: It’s funny, my prediction on who wins the game has gone back and forth, but the score has stayed the same. While the over/under is quite something, I think the weather and both defenses influence it quite a bit.

Both defenses are elite and are about equal in my eyes. When it comes to offense, I give the Gophers the edge, while Iowa has the advantage when it comes to special teams.

If Athan Kaliakmanis can make a play or two with his arm and mobility, I think the Gophers will put SOME points on the board. If the passing game is even remotely there, it should open up things for Mo Ibrahim. I am scared to death of Tory Taylor and his ability to flip the field, though.

I see Athan using his mobility and big arm to keep the Iowa defense honest enough for the Gophers to have some success. The Gophers are going to go after Petras and force him to make mistakes. I think the Hawkeyes will have more turnovers than the Gophers at the end of the day. I have Minnesota taking back Floyd on Senior Day.

Prediction: Minnesota 17 Iowa 13.

So there you have it, the Iowa offense finally, officially, costs the Hawkeyes the West crown.

Thanks again to Noel Thompson of Gopher Hole for taking the time to answer our questions this week. Be sure to stop over to Gopher Hole for all their coverage of this week’s matchup. You can follow Noel on Twitter @N0ELTHOMPSON. Gopher Hole is @Gopherhole.