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Iowa vs. Minnesota Football Preview

In a battle of two teams with atrocious passing offenses, the team that can stop their opponent’s running game could have an advantage.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa football’s next step on its quest to win the Big Ten West will force the Hawkeyes to defeat one of its oldest and most storied rivals. While Iowa has lost more games against Minnesota (62) than it has won (52), the Hawkeyes have gone a long way towards evening the score over the past few decades. The Hawkeyes have won eight straight games against Minnesota, have not lost to the Gophers at Kinnick since 1999, and have surrendered the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy only four times this millennium. This streak of dominance also extends to the program’s leaders, as PJ Fleck has made a career out of losing to Kirk Ferentz as a player and coach; Fleck’s only career win against Iowa came in 2006 as a grad assistant at Ohio State, which probably had more to do with Troy Smith and James Laurinaitis than it did the brilliant coaching of Minnesota’s resident boat-rower.

As one-sided as the Iowa-Minnesota rivalry has been lately, the Gophers still pose a significant threat to the Hawkeyes. Of Iowa’s eight consecutive wins against Minnesota, seven of them have been decided by one score or less. The Gophers will be itching for a long-awaited victory over the Hawkeyes, and a lethargic performance could spoil last week’s big win over Wisconsin and put Iowa’s divisional title hopes in jeopardy.

Here are few key factors to watch for in this week’s matchup:

1. Which defense can best slow down the opposing running game?

The best rivalries are often made up of two teams who have far more in common than not. Both Iowa and Minnesota pride themselves on fielding physical defenses and controlling the game through a commitment to running the football. This year’s iteration of the Floyd of Rosedale game will be no different. Minnesota averages the second most rushing attempts in the conference with 40.7 per game, while Iowa’s running game has started to come on over the past two weeks with two different running backs eclipsing the 100-yard mark in Iowa’s wins of Purdue and Wisconsin.

Given both teams’ struggles in the passing game (more on that later), the team that runs the ball most effectively could be the one who emerges as the victor. Minnesota may have the most talented running back in this game in freshman Darius Taylor, though it is unclear whether he will suit up after missing the last two contests with a leg injury. If Taylor is unable to go, Minnesota’s running game will take a significant hit; senior Bryce Williams has been underwhelming this season while averaging 3.4 yards per carry, though Western Michigan transfer Sean Tyler is a proven commodity and freshman Zach Evans has started to come on as the season progresses. Meanwhile, Iowa’s running back rotation is finally healthy with the return of Kaleb Johnson and Jaziun Patterson from injury. These two backs, plus Leshon Williams who is coming off a career day against Wisconsin (174 rushing yards on 25 carries), should give Iowa several options to throw at the Gopher defense.

Unlike most Minnesota teams, this Gopher squad has struggled to stop the run. While Minnesota has yet to surrender a 100-yard rusher, they have allowed eight rushing touchdowns compared to Iowa’s one and are giving up 4.47 yards per carry, the second most in the Big Ten. However, the Gophers do have a solid D-line bolstered by defensive tackle Kyler Baugh and defensive end Danny Striggow that could test the recent growth shown by Iowa’s offensive line. Meanwhile, Iowa has had surprising difficulty stopping the run in recent games against Minnesota. The Hawkeyes surrender a whopping 263 rushing yards to Mohammed Ibrahim last year and 220 yards to his freshmen backups the year prior. While Iowa managed to win both of those games, PJ Fleck’s proven ability to find holes in the Hawkeye rush defense could allow the Gophers to stay in this contest if/when Iowa’s offense continues to falter. However, if Iowa can slow down the Minnesota ground game, their chances of extending their series win streak to nine are quite high.

2. Can either Deacon Hill or Athan Kaliakmanis make big plays through the air?

Iowa vs. Minnesota may be one of the worst quarterback matchups college football fans are likely to see this season. Deacon Hill is undefeated since taking over as Iowa’s starting quarterback, but has been extremely inaccurate, completing only 38.6% of his passes on the season. Meanwhile, Athan Kaliakmanis (who, fittingly, was once recruited by Iowa) has only 797 passing yards through six games and has been the least efficient passer in the Big Ten among qualifying quarterbacks (though he should count his blessings that neither Hill nor Cade McNamara have thrown enough passes to make the list). Neither quarterback has benefited much from their receivers, either. Iowa’s wideouts have been non-factors all season, and their leading receivers (tight ends Luke Lachey and Erick All) are both out after suffering significant injuries. Minnesota will similarly be without wide receiver Lemeke Brockington, while transfer Corey Crooms hasn’t been quite as productive since arriving in Minnesota. All told, Iowa and Minnesota rank last and second to last in the conference in passer rating and passing yards per game and attempt, respectively.

Can either team get any production from their passing game? Iowa’s defense will make it difficult for the Gophers to make much hay through the air, as the Hawkeyes are second in the conference in fewest yards allowed for pass (4.9) and most interceptions (eight). Minnesota, meanwhile, has shown some vulnerability defending the pass. No Big Ten team is allowing opponents to complete a higher percentage of their passes (63.5%) for more yards per attempt (7.9) or allowing a higher opponent passer rating (139.67) than the Gophers are. Whether the Hawkeyes can actually take advantage of this weakness remains to be seen. However, with both teams likely to key in on the run, there should be some opportunities to attack the opposing defense downfield. Deacon Hill has been trying to connect on a deep shot since taking over under center. If this is the week he finally connects on one of these deep shots, it could put Iowa in a strong position to win.

3. Can the Hawkeyes win on third down?

As with most of the team’s offensive statistics, Iowa’s third down numbers on the season have been absolutely dreadful. The Hawkeyes rank last in the Big Ten and third-to-last in the nation in third down conversion percentage with only 26.32%. Fortunately for Iowa, Minnesota’s defense may offer some relief on that front. The Gophers are allowing opponents to convert 50% of their third-down attempts, which is the highest percentage in the Big Ten and is higher than all but four FBS schools. One team will have an opportunity to improve their abysmal third down numbers, but which one? Deacon Hill hasn’t shown much touch on short passes, so Iowa’s best chance to convert on third down may be if they can get the Gophers into third-and-short. Avoiding negative plays on first and second down will be critical to helping Iowa sustain drives and keeping the Hawkeye defense off the field.