IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa and Minnesota are nearly identical teams. Both want to do the same things. Both are coming off a league loss. And both are in need of the same thing: a win Saturday.
Iowa (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) fell to Northwestern last week. Minnesota (3-1, 0-1) fell to Penn State. This game on Saturday (11 a.m. CT, ESPN2) almost serves a de facto elimination game in the Big Ten West Division race.
So who holds the edge? Let’s take a look.
When Iowa has the ball
Plenty goes into why Iowa lost to North Dakota State and Northwestern and a lack of a rushing attack is a big part of the problem. Iowa is averaging 56.5 rushing yards in losses.
Minnesota is sixth in the league, allowing 123.0 rushing yards per game. It’s a good figure, but the early schedule was on the easy side for the Golden Gophers. Linebacker Jack Lynn leads Minnesota with 27 tackles. Here are his highlights:
There also should be an opportunity for the Iowa pass game. The question is if the Hawkeyes can make the most of it.
Minnesota is last in the Big Ten allowing 255.3 passing yards per game. It will require quarterback C.J. Beathard to get back on track. Wide receiver Riley McCarron emerged as the top wide receiver target with Matt VandeBerg injured. Iowa must find a way to get tight end George Kittle more incorporated into the offense. He hauled in only one catch (on four targets) against Northwestern.
Making sure there is wide receiver separation and solid pass blocking are musts for the Hawkeyes to take advantage of the Minnesota secondary. Neither has been a certainty in recent weeks.
When Minnesota has the ball
How much can a team improve in one week? Iowa fans will find out the answer this week. Minnesota is designed to take advantage of several of the issues plaguing Iowa recently. None more so than its rush defense.
The Golden Gophers want to maul the opposition and have done a good job of it so far. Minnesota is fourth in the league in rushing, averaging 228.3 yards per game. Rodney Smith, the feature back, has rushed for 402 yards and five touchdowns.
Iowa is allowing 182.8 rushing yards per game, 11th worst in the conference. If the Hawkeyes didn’t make improvements in their interior run defense the Golden Gophers will look to hand the ball off to victory. Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner (three rushing touchdowns) can be a threat on the ground too. He also has completing 28 of 39 passes for 397 yards against Iowa the last two seasons.
Iowa, led by cornerback Desmond King, is third in the Big Ten in pass defense, allowing only 181.9 yards per game. But allowing big pass plays was a problem in the second half against Northwestern, and Leidner will be the best Big Ten quarterback Iowa has faced to date.
It will be strength on strength Saturday. Minnesota is 37th nationally in kickoff return defense and 48th in punt return defense. All King and McCarron did was combined for 254 kickoff and punt return yards last week. A big return could go a long way for an Iowa team that needed them to set up most of its scores against Northwestern.
Minnesota holds the edge at kicker. Emmit Carpenter has made all nine of his field-goal attempts, including five from 40 yards or longer.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is trying to stick with what’s worked in the past. The Hawkeyes don’t appear to be changing schemes or altering their approach to anything. Minnesota first-year coach Tracy Claeys fired offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover so he could bring in offensive coordinator Jay Johnson and offensive line coach Bart Miller to turn the Golden Gophers back into a strong rushing team. The moves worked.
The joke here is, that with both teams wanting to do the same thing, the team with the most rushing yards wins. There is a lot of truth to that. The Golden Gophers appear to be in position to exploit the Hawkeyes’ problem areas. If that’s the case, it could be a long game. Iowa will need to play its best Big Ten game to date if it wants to retain the Floyd of Rosedale.
Bobby La Gesse Prediction: Minnesota 31, Iowa 21
Scott Dochterman Prediction: Minnesota 41, Iowa 27