Minnesota Gopher Football vs.  Iowa Hawkeyes preview and prediction

Minnesota Gopher Football vs. Iowa Hawkeyes preview and prediction

This Big Ten game has a projected over/under of 32 points, and when you look at the weather, it’ll be the coldest game at Huntington Bank Stadium in years, with a projected high temperature of 17 degrees. The “real feel” in the stadium will likely be in the single digits for the game’s duration as well. But even with the cold temperatures and arguably the best defense that the Gophers’ offense has faced all season. Minnesota’s offense has to take shots down the field.

They, under no circumstances, can try to “out-Iowa” the Hawkeyes and expect to win the football game.

Hell, they tried that last year. In their loss in Kinnick Stadium in ’21, Minnesota had 40 minutes of time of possession and out-gained the Iowa offense by 140 yards. And they still lost, even with their PJ Fleck offensive special.

So how did Iowa find a way to overcome that last season? They won the explosive play battle. Former Iowa WR Charlie Jones makes a diving 30+ yard catch in the red zone, and Iowa scores a touchdown soon after. Keagan Johnson makes two Gophers miss behind the line of scrimmage and then accelerates for a 27-yard touchdown. Charlie Jones hits Justin Walley on a double move, and it’s a 70+ yard score.

While Minnesota OC Kirk Ciarrocca wasn’t around this game last season, he’s been in this game three times previously. This isn’t his first go-around against Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker. But the Gophers can’t just run Mo Ibrahim 35 times and expect to win this game. Their passing game will have to make the “routine” plays, and they’ll also need to hit on some deep shots. I know that Iowa defensive backs Riley Moss and Cooper DeJean are outstanding players and likely will be named all-Big Ten performers in a few weeks. But you still have to stretch the field, which means shot plays to Dylan Wright, Michael Brown-Stephens, and the other pass-catchers.

The Gophers’ big wrinkle last year offensively was the toss game to Bucky Irving and Ky Thomas. Minnesota was able to show something they hadn’t done all year, and as is the goal every year, you want to try and get Iowa’s defense moving east-west, and not just straight north-south. Phil Parker will be ready for that in ’22, but the key remains the same. There has to be some new wrinkle in the run game to move the ball on this stout Iowa defense.

But the biggest thing I could stress to PJ Fleck and the offensive staff. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake against Iowa. Push the ball down the field, and if Moss/DeJean intercepts it in Iowa territory, oh well! Iowa’s offense is legitimately bad, and Minnesota’s defense has been outstanding again this season. Make the Hawkeye offense drive more than 50 yards to score a touchdown, as they haven’t been doing much all season.

It’s been 22 drives since the Iowa offense has scored a touchdown when starting in their own territory, and it’s been 26 offensive drives since they scored a touchdown when starting within their own 25-yard line. They’re not consistent, so if you go with a deep shot and it’s picked deep in Iowa territory, who cares. Trust your defense to make a stand against an anemic offense.

I hope Minnesota’s offensive game plan on Saturday isn’t to “out Iowa” the Hawkeyes, as the Minnesota teams of yesteryear that have tried haven’t had success. Attack this Iowa defense down the field.

It’s the same game plan for Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi every week, and that’s to stop the run and limit explosive plays, and that couldn’t be any more true than when taking on Brian Ferentz’s Iowa offense. The Hawkeyes are dead-last in the Big Ten in total offense at 251 yards per game, and their passing game has been as inconsistent as the Gophers in conference play.

The key will be stopping Hawkeye freshman running back Kaleb Johnson, who has turned it on in the last few games for Iowa. He just ran for 200 yards against Northwestern, with 151 yards after contact, and he forced 14 (!!) missed tackles in that contest. He’s got the deep speed to house it if he gets open space, but stopping the Iowa run game has to be paramount in this game. Because if the Gophers can get Iowa’s offense in 2nd and 3rd-and-long, there will be opportunities to create turnovers.

Iowa’s offensive line has been a disappointment this year. I don’t know how else to put it. They’ve given up the second-most pressures in the Big Ten West (behind Nebraska), and there isn’t a single Hawkeye offensive lineman with a PFF pass-protection grade of over 49.0. I’ll remind you that a PFF grade of 60.0 is average, so all five starters on the offensive line have been below-average to bad in pass pro. That said, their quarterback Spencer Petras does them absolutely no favors. He’s incredibly immobile, and his pocket movement is essentially non-existent.

All of this is to say that if you can get pressure on Petras, he will not break the pocket and beat you with his legs. When Petras has been “under pressure” via the PFF definition of that statement, he’s completing 36% of his passes with four interceptions to one touchdown. When he’s “kept clean,” he’s completing 64% of his passes with a 4:1 touchdown to interception ratio.

But Minnesota lost a game to Iowa in ’21, where their offense had 40 minutes of possession because the Gopher defense gave up too many explosive plays. Iowa’s offense ran 50 plays last year against Minnesota (via PFF), and three of them accounted for 133 of the Hawkeyes’ 277 yards of total offense. That’s 48% of their yards on just three plays. Iowa’s offense only averaged 3.06 yards on the other 47 plays, but they won the game because they hit on their explosive plays.

If Rossi’s defense can limit Iowa’s offense to just one or two chunk plays, Minnesota will have a great shot to regain Floyd.

Iowa special teams are again incredible this season.

Hawkeye punter Tory Taylor leads the Big Ten in both punts inside the 20 (29) and punts of 50+ yards (21). Taylor and Minnesota punt Mark Crawford are similar in their punts inside the 20, as around 40-45% of their punts end up there. The considerable discrepancy comes from the ability to flip the field, where Crawford has four punts of over 50 yards this season while Taylor has 21. In a game that will likely be very low-scoring and where field position will matter, being able to flip the field may loom large.

The Hawkeyes also blocked three punts this year, including one last week against Wisconsin. Minnesota hasn’t blocked one since 2020, and I’ll remind you that the Gophers had a punt tipped, not blocked, against Penn State a few weeks ago. I also think back to last year’s game, where Iowa blocked a field goal against Minnesota.

The kicking game between the two teams is pretty even, as both placekickers have been really good. Iowa’s Drew Stevens has only missed two kicks all season, while the Gophers’ Matthew Trickett has missed one. Stevens has the edge from distance with two 50+ makes.

The return game, specifically in punt return, is a huge part of Iowa’s special teams’ success. They lead the Big Ten in punt return yardage, but I’m not worried about that in this game, facing a Gopher punt unit that has allowed three punt return yards all season. That’s also what happens when you rank 13th in the Big Ten in yards per punt at 39 yards.
Minnesota’s special teams haven’t been an issue this year, and that’s a step up from previous seasons. But in a game where it’ll be tight, the Gophers have to figure out a way not to let Iowa’s special teams dictate field position all game long.

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