Iowa’s upcoming tilt against Minnesota is its most important game of the season to date, and only a Hawkeye win will result in the team playing more meaningful contests than this one before year’s end. Iowa’s flaws are apparent and its struggles well-documented, but the team has done a phenomenal job rebounding from a slow start and an atrocious three-game losing streak in October to earn a shot at winning the Big Ten West. While a win over the Gophers does not guarantee Iowa a trip to Indianapolis, a loss would all but eliminate them from contention. To capture pole position in the Big Ten West race, Iowa will need to beat its rival to the north for a record-setting eighth consecutive time, win its 14th consecutive game in the month of November (a streak that dates back to 2019), and notch its first win of the season against a top ten scoring defense, having gone 0-4 against such competition so far this year. With both Iowa and Minnesota still in contention for the divisional crown, tomorrow’s matchup at Kinnick North should see both teams empty the chamber in an effort to win the West at the expense of their hated rival.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in this weekend’s game:
1. Can Iowa slow down Minnesota’s elite running attack?
As has been the case for most of the program’s existence, the strength of the Minnesota offense lies with its rushing game. Minnesota has the conference’s second best ground game and is churning out an impressive 221.2 yards per game, while star running back Mohamed Ibrahim (1261 rushing yards this season on 5.3 yards per carry) leads the Big Ten with 18 rushing touchdowns. Ibrahim does not appear to have lost a step since returning from last year’s season-ending Achilles injury and has shown the same combination of power, speed, and vision that has made him one of the conference’s most dangerous offensive weapons since his breakout season in 2018.
However, the credit of Minnesota’s success on the ground extends beyond Ibrahim. The star running back is a workhorse who is one of the nation’s leaders in carries with 238, but backup Trey Potts has proven himself to be an effective yin to Ibrahim’s yang. Meanwhile, John Michael Schmitz is an elite center and leads an excellent offensive line that has allowed Gopher ballcarriers to be stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage only 11.3% of the time, the fifth-lowest rate in college football. Minnesota’s front five has played a physical, technically sound brand of football this season, which has enabled the Gopher running backs to maximize their production, even when facing stingy run defenses such as Illinois.
Fortunately for Iowa fans, the Hawkeye defense has been exceptional against the run this season. Iowa is allowing the 2nd-fewest yards per carry in college football at only 2.55, and no team has surrendered fewer rushing touchdowns (three) than the Hawkeyes this season. Phil Parker’s defense put on a master class at stopping the run last week, holding a potent Wisconsin ground game to only 51 yards on 1.6 yards per carry while managing to simultaneously eliminate rushing lanes on the interior and prevent the Badger rushers from reaching the edge. Iowa will need a similarly strong outing to slow down the Gopher running game on Saturday, but the Hawkeyes should have a good chance to leave Minneapolis with a win if the defense can manage a repeat performance.
2. Which team’s quarterback can make the most plays within the flow of the offense?
Iowa and Minnesota are both built to keep the ball on the ground, yet each team may experience tough sledding against an opposing defense that keys in to shut down the run. If that happens, the Hawkeyes and Gophers will need to coax competent play out of their passing games to have a chance at victory. Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras mustered up only 94 passing yards against Wisconsin, but much of the blame for this poor performance rested on the shoulders of an offensive line that allowed six sacks and more QB pressures than this author could count. While Minnesota has an excellent pass defense (the Gophers are allowing only 167.2 passing yards per game this season, the eighth-fewest in the country), there is reason to believe that Iowa’s line might fare better against Minnesota’s pass rush than they did the Badgers’. The Gophers are averaging only 1.6 sacks per game (the third-lowest rate in the Big Ten), only slightly more than Northwestern (1.4 sacks per game), an opponent against whom Iowa’s line proved capable of maintaining a clean pocket for Petras to throw from. Iowa’s receivers may struggle to create separation from a talented group of Gopher cornerbacks, but a bounce back performance from Iowa’s OL could give Petras enough time to target playmaker tight ends Sam LaPorta and Luke Lachey, whose matchups against excellent safeties Jordan Howden and Tyler Nubin will be ones to watch on Saturday.
The Gophers, meanwhile, have yet to announce whether veteran Tanner Morgan of former Iowa target Athan Kaliakmanis will start under center. Kaliakmanis has given the Gopher offense an additional running threat in relief of the injured Morgan, but has seriously struggled as a passer, completing only 46.6% of his attempts for one touchdown and three interceptions. While Minnesota has an excellent receiving tight end in Brevyn Spann-Ford, the team’s receiving corps has been uninspiring since Chris Autman-Bell was lost to injury earlier in the season and should struggle to gain separation against an Iowa secondary that is playing as well as any in the country. If Iowa manages to take away the Gopher run game and keep Kaliakmanis in the pocket, there is reason to question whether Minnesota will be able to move the ball through the air, particularly if the Hawkeyes can build a lead late and force the Gophers to become pass dependent.
3. Can Iowa find a way to win on 3rd down?
If there is one area where the Gophers thrive on both sides of the ball, it is performing at a high level on third down. Minnesota’s offense boasts the nation’s best third down conversion rate with a whopping 55.56%, while its defense is allowing the second lowest success rate on third down at only 25.41%.
Offensively, Minnesota moves the chains at a high rate by winning on early downs and putting the offense in a position to convert on third and short. The team’s power success rate (the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown) is an impressive 90.9%, the 3rd best in the country. Iowa’s defense has generally been solid on third down this year (the Hawks are allowing opponents to convert only 31.06% of the time) but will be tested against a maddeningly efficient Gopher offense if they fail to produce negative plays on first or second down. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s defense will face a Hawkeye team that has been absolutely atrocious on third down, converting on a woeful 28.99% of attempts and trailing only Georgia Tech for the worst success rate in the Power Five. Freshman running back Kaleb Johnson has shown a real nose for the first down marker this season, but Iowa will need to avoid stalling out on early downs if they hope to put the ball in Johnson’s hands on conversion attempts in this game. If the Hawkeyes can create third and short opportunities which force the defense to choose between selling out against the run or shadowing reliable third down targets Sam LaPorta or Nico Ragaini, Iowa may have a fighting chance to keep its drives alive. Otherwise, expect the team’s difficulties on third down (and, by extension, its struggles sustaining drives) to continue against the Gophers.