The Iowa Hawkeyes are fresh off a rivalry trophy win over the Wisconsin Badges as they emerged from Madison with the Heartland Trophy for the first time since 2015. Now they look for back-to-back trophy wins as they play host to the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the battle for Floyd of Rosedale.
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 rather than sticking our head up anyone’s rear end, we’re asking our friends over at GopherHole for their words on the Minnesota Golden Gophers as we prepare for this weekend’s matchup. We were joined by Noel Thompson over at GH to talk all things Minnesota this week. Here’s a look at our conversation.
BHGP: The Hawkeyes and Gophers have a storied history and are certainly no strangers. Head coach PJ Fleck is in his 7th season at Minnesota and after a pair of 9-win seasons the last two years, the Gophers have had a bit of a bumpy start to 2023. What’s been different about this group vs recent iterations of the Gophers and who are some of the new names and faces Hawkeye fans should know for Saturday’s matchup?
GH: Great question. Both sides of the ball have taken a step back from previous years, but it’s the defense that has taken the bigger step in the wrong direction. The defense has not looked like your typical Joe Rossi defense that has finished as one of the best in the nation the last two years. This was a unit that was one of the best at getting off the field on 3rd down last year; now it’s one of the worst. The reason for that is the youth and inexperience at the linebacker position. The Gophers desperately need Cody Lindenburg back this Saturday, who has missed every game this season nursing a hamstring injury. The rumor is that Lindenburg could make his season debut against the Hawkeyes. That will be a huge boost for the defense.
Regarding new names and faces, you have to start with running back Darius Taylor. He was the prize jewel of last year’s recruiting class and has looked the part so far. The Michigan native was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week three weeks in a row earlier in the season before he got injured at Northwestern. Nobody in the country was averaging more rushing yards per game in that span. It’s expected that Taylor will return this week.
On defense, one new name that has made an impact is Southeastern Louisiana transfer Jack Henderson. The defensive back has filled in nicely, as he already has two interceptions with his 32 tackles.
BHGP: On the offensive side of the ball, Minnesota has struggled (not as much as Iowa) to put points on the board averaging just 21.7 points per game. That number falls to just over 18 points per game in power five matchups. What’s been the key to the Gophers’ offensive struggles, where have they had success and how do you expect them to attack Iowa’s 4-3 cover 2 defense on Saturday?
GH: The struggles and success really rely on the play of quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis and the passing game. The sophomore has definitely experienced growing pains in his first year as a full-time starter. The inconsistency in the passing game and lack of explosive plays have really been the keys to the struggles this season. The success of the offense this season is what Minnesota has always done well: running the ball. The Gophers have two really good freshmen running backs, Zach Evans and Darius Taylor. Both players have received conference accolades this season. Coming off the bye week, the goal is that both players will contribute on Saturday.
I expect and hope that Minnesota lets loose on offense. They need to establish some sort of passing game and spread the field with it. I think Minnesota should have some success in the running game against Iowa; if they do, they need to take chances in the passing game. I don’t think you are going to have success against this Iowa defense if you’re going on long drives. Explosive plays will be the key. If Athan can get in a groove, I’m confident the Gophers can have some success against the Hawkeyes defense.
BHGP: On the other side of the ball, the Gophers are giving up 26.7 points per game (just over 33 ppg against power 5 opponents). Minnesota is 10th in rushing defense in the league giving up 138 yards per game on the ground and 12th in passing defense, giving up 235 yards per game through the air. What sort of scheme will Iowa fans see in Kinnick on Saturday, is there a fundamental weakness you see that others have exploited to give this anemic Iowa offense some hope, and if there’s one guy for the Iowa OL to block, who should it be?
GH: The biggest headscratcher at times for Gophers fans this season is the play of the defense. Who at times doesn’t even resemble or come close to a typical Joe Rossi 4-3 defense. In previous years, the Gophers have excelled at not giving up big plays, turning the ball over, and having success on third down. This year, they have taken a huge step back on two of those three things. Last year, opposing offenses converted only 27% of third downs; this year, the number jumps to 50%. The Gophers have already given up more explosive plays this year than they did all of last year. If I’m Iowa, I’m doing my best to confuse the young Gophers linebackers. I would be giving them as many looks as I could and making them play disciplined. This is where Minnesota fans are really hoping that Cody Lindenburg makes his season debut. While his presence won’t fix all the problems, it won’t make things worse.
Besides the players that I have already mentioned, the Gophers are led by pre-season All-American safety Tyler Nubin, who leads the team with three interceptions. On the defensive line, I will make sure I know where Danny Striggow is. He is fourth on the team in tackles and has three sacks this season. Kyler Baugh is also someone who has played better on the defensive line as the season has gone on.
BHGP: This is Iowa so I have to ask about special teams. Notably, like the Hawkeyes, the Gophers boast an Aussie punter. Talk to me about Mark Crawford, who comes in averaging 43.3 yards per punt with more than 22% of punts inside the opponent’s 20 (as an aside, it must be bittersweet only seeing an average of 4.5 punts per game, a full 2.2 fewer punts per game than we get to oogle from Tory Taylor thanks to our offensive woes). And in the kicking game, Dragan Kesich seems to be having a tremendous season going 10 of 11 kicking (perfect on PATs) with a long out to 54 and his only miss from beyond 50. How far does his range extend and how comfortable are Gopher fans if things come down to Kesich’s leg on a last-second attempt?
GH: This is a topic that has really turned into a point of contention for Minnesota fans. As special teams play this season, it has been the definition of inconsistent. Outside of Dragan Kesich, special teams play has been pretty frustrating. Mark Crawford’s 43.3 yards per punt places him 36th in the nation, which isn’t ideal. While he may not punt as often as Tory Taylor, he definitely doesn’t flip the field like Taylor does. In my opinion, Dragan Kesich has been the only bright spot for Minnesota’s special teams. On kickoffs, he has 24 touchbacks in 28 attempts. I think that stat matters when you play for a team like Iowa. He made a 54-yard field goal against Michigan with plenty of room to spare. He has been seen making 60-yard field goals in warm-ups. Given that he made a game-winning 47-yard field goal against Nebraska in the season opener, I would feel pretty comfortable if the game came down to his leg. Even if it was over 50 yards.
BHGP: OK, prediction time. DraftKings Sportsbook opened this one with the Hawkeyes favored by 5.5 points with an over/under set at 32.5 total points - the third lowest total on record. The last meeting between these two teams was actually the lowest total on record at 31.5 and they hit the under with 23 total points. How do you see this one playing out and what’s your final score prediction?
GH: When it comes to bye weeks, they either come at the perfect time or the wrong time. I think it’s the former for Minnesota. They needed time to get healthy, regroup, and work on things. More importantly, it gave them two weeks to prepare for a team they haven’t beaten at their place in over 20 years. I am really curious to see if running back Darius Taylor and linebacker Cody Lindenburg return for Minnesota, because I really do believe they are that big of a difference-maker. Of course, we won’t know if they are playing until two hours before kickoff because P.J. Fleck treats injury news like they are nuclear codes. But from what I’ve heard, both should be available on Saturday.
With all of that said, if there was a year where Minnesota had a chance to beat Iowa, this has to be it, right? Minnesota should come into this game pretty healthy, while Iowa has had some unfortunate injury news the last few weeks. I don’t see this game being the most entertaining game to watch, but I think Minnesota’s offense wakes up a little and the defense improves enough to keep the Gophers in the game. Athan makes plays with his arm and legs and Tyler Nubin comes up with a key interception.
My prediction is Minnesota 17, Iowa 13.
For the record, if I’m wrong, I will never predict Minnesota winning this game in the future.
So there you have it, Hawkeye dreams come crashing down this weekend as the offense continues to lack any production at all.
Thanks again to Noel for taking the time to share tons of insight on the Gophers this week. If you get a minute, be sure to hop over to GopherHole. They’ve got some great content covering the matchup, including a Q&A with yours truly.
The Hawkeyes and Gophers are set to kick off at 2:30 pm CT on Saturday. The game will be broadcast on NBC.