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2022 opponent preview: Minnesota Golden Gophers

The last time Minnesota beat the Hawkeyes, Tanner Morgan was 15 (he’s 23 now)

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

I have nothing to say about Minneapolis, MN because the last time I was there, it was April and there was a historic snowstorm. The Golden Gophers haven’t beaten Iowa since 2014 despite, genuinely speaking, PJ Fleck’s best effort last year at out-Ferentzing Kirk Ferentz. He had Iowa right where he wanted them and then Keagan Johnson did this!

A great playcall because it resulted in a touchdown. A horrible one because two Goofers got their mitts on Johnson well behind the line of scrimmage. Such is football.

5 Ws

Who: Minnesota Golden Gophers (Minneapolis, MN; Big Ten Conference)
Head Coach: P.J. Fleck (35-23 at Minnesota, 65-45 overall)

What: A rivalry where the winner takes home a bronze pig

When: November 19th, 2022

Where: Huntington Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, MN

Why: Because two governors said so back in the 1930s after the Golden Gophers were racist and Iowa fans were assholes.

4 Stats

64: Per Phil Steele, the Gophers’ offensive line will return just 64 starts, headlined by center John Michael Schmitz. The most notable loss off the 2021 line, who combined for 182 starts, is Daniel Faalele (Tyler Linderbaum’s teammate). Their ability to road-grade up front enabled a strong rushing attack despite losing multiple running backs to injury throughout the season.

11: Last season, Minnesota had 23 first downs while Iowa managed just 12. Since Kirk Ferentz has adopted the Goofers as his children (2015), Iowa has actually averaged 1.5 less first downs/game than Minny. In five matchups against Fleck-coached squads, four times Goldy had as many or more first downs as Iowa. Now, that includes two absolute blowouts of Minnesota, so tread carefully with that stat, but they’ve become an elite ball control unit under Fleck.

3,253: Tanner Morgan’s passing yardage in 2019, the last season Kirk Ciarrocca was offensive coordinator for Minnesota before reuniting for 2022. The question for Minnesota is how much was that pairing a function of Morgan’s efficiency or how much was having really, really good wide receivers. In 20 games since 2019, he’s barely eclipsed that yardage: 3,418 with a huge dropoff in completion percentage - 66.0% to 58.9%.

6: Would you believe it if I told you the Gophers finished 2021 as the #6 scoring defense in all the land? They allowed over 20 points just twice in their last 11 games (Iowa & Nebraska).

3 Guys

Mohammed Ibrahim (#24, RS Sr, 5’10”, 210 lbs): The third of four key sixth-year seniors (Morgan & Schmitz are 1/2), Ibrahim has not one but two 1000-yard rushing seasons on his resume. He was on his way to his third, with 162 yards in just three quarters of play before he tore his Achilles. He won Big Ten RB of the year with his seven-game 2020 & 15 (!!!) touchdowns.

He blends shiftiness and a bruising running style (5.3+ yards/carry in each of his four seasons) and looked like the best player on the field in his lone contest last season. If there’s a gap in his game, it’s that he’s not used more often as a receiver with just 15 catches in his career.

Iowa’s done well against him, though, in three games. He’s accumulated 215 yards in the contests on just 4.38 yards/carry. Perhaps what is most impressive is that Iowa has kept him out of the end zone.

Chris Autman-Bell (#7, WR, RS Sr, 6’1”, 210 lbs): CAB was the #3 wideout on Minnesota’s vaunted 2019 passing attack behind two 1000-yard receivers in Tyler Johnson & Rashod Bateman. He’s snagged 22+ passes in each of his four seasons and is the most productive of a solid bunch. He averaged a sterling 19.5 yards/reception in 2020 and has caught 12 touchdown passes on his career and will look to be the bell cow of Fleck’s receiving corps. In the two seasons since 2019, they’ve only had one receiver over 500 yards (Autman-Bell last season).

In the clip above, he caught a career-high 11 passes and was often used as an extension of his team’s running game with RPO action out of the slot.

Mariano Soni-Marin (#55, LB, RS Sr, 6’3”, 245 lbs): He was Minnesota’s #2 tackler with 85 last season and five for loss after leading the team in the category for 2020. He’ll hold down the center and can create some game changing plays with an interception, six pass deflections, and three forced fumbles to his name. As the only returning starter among the linebackers, he’s arguably the most important player on the defense.

(Also worth mentioning is the aptly named rush end, Thomas Rush, who returns as the high man in sacks with 5.5 last season)

2 Cases

Best case: Iowa scores early & often, forcing the Gophers to play left handed and neutralizing their run game. The Hawks maintain a 14-point lead and control the ball behind a double-100 yard run game between Kaleb Johnson and Gavin Williams. Spencer Petras throws 10 passes.

Worst case: Last year, without the screen to Keagan Johnson.

1 Question

What more can PJ Fleck do? Honestly, this question is mostly rhetorical. I think if you’d draw up a statistical profile for Minnesota to come away from the rivalry for the first time since 2014, it’d look like a copy/paste from last season: outgained Iowa by 132 yards, no turnovers, 50 (!!!) rushing attempts, 40:19 time of possession...

They’ll need good Tanner Morgan, who’s been absent from this matchup. He completed less than 50% of his passes in the prior two matchups after a 69% (nice) game in 2019. I fear bringing the 2019 OC back tips this one back towards Minneapolis, as Fleck has won each of their last three home finales.