MINNESOTA (4-0) at IOWA (2-2)
IOWA RUSH OFFENSE VS. MINNESOTA RUSH DEFENSE
Sophomore Mark Weisman has settled in. According to Stats Inc., the Air Force transfer fullback-turned-running back is the first Iowa player to rush for more than 300 and score six rush TDs in a two-game span since Tavian Banks in 1997. Iowa has hammered the inside zone to smithereens the last two weeks, with Weisman making one read and taking off. Iowa’s inside blocking between guards Matt Tobin and Austin Blythe and center James Ferentz has been outstanding. Tackles Brandon Scherff and Brett Van Sloten also have important roles on the inside zone and they’ve contributed. This week, the degree of difficulty skyrockets. Minnesota is extremely strong up the middle of its defense, starting with monster noseguard Ra’Shede Hageman, whose 6-6, 301-pounder who tweeted earlier this week, “Today I’m hungry. Im taking things serious, building my craft to perfection. I’m taking what’s mine then I’m taking yours and making it mine.” Advantage: Iowa
IOWA PASS OFFENSE VS. MINNESOTA PASS DEFENSE
Iowa’s passing game has its moments. The Hawkeyes had three plays of 20-plus yards last week, including a 38-yard completion on their first snap of the game. The fact of the matter is the components of Iowa’s passing game are still not seeing the game the same way. On a fourth down against the blitz in the first half, QB James Vandenberg and WR Kevonte Martin-Manley couldn’t get on the same page. A TD pass was there, the correct adjustment wasn’t made. Jordan Cotton has grabbed the No. 3 receivers spot. He’s a fourth-year player who wants to prove something. Minnesota relies on its front four to provide a pass rush (11 sacks, No. 2 in the B1G) and allows UM secondary, which already has seven interceptions after just four all last season, to sit back in a two-high zone, allowing the corners to play press or back off. Iowa will have to spread the safeties and try to work the middle of the field against the No. 24 pass defense in the country. Advantage: Minnesota
MINNESOTA RUSH OFFENSE VS. IOWA RUSH DEFENSE
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill’s description of QB MarQueis Gray’s state softened considerably during the week. On Sunday, Gray couldn’t keep up with Kill while jogging out to the field before Saturday night’s Syracuse game. Later, Kill said he didn’t expect Gray, a working man’s Terrelle Pryor at 6-4, 250 with wheels, to be ready today. Gray suffered a high-ankle sprain Sept. 15 against Western Michigan and missed Syracuse. He gives Minnesota’s zone read out of the spread a much different dimension than replacement Max Shortell, who’s not an imposing run threat. Sophomore Donnell Kirkwood is a plugger at 5-10, 219 pounds and averaging 4.4 yards a carry. Freshman K.J. Maye has some quick-twitch burst, but Gray is the thoroughbred. If he’s healthy, he’s a game-changer. In two years against Iowa, Gray carried 19 times for 101 yards and two TDs and has hit 11 of 17 passes for 193 yards and a TD. Iowa LB James Morris fought through what the Big Ten Network reported as a lower-back injury last week. Ferentz said on his radio show Wednesday that Morris has practiced all week and will play. Advantage: Iowa
MINNESOTA PASS OFFENSE VS. IOWA PASS DEFENSE
Last week, the call was for Iowa’s pass rush to turn on. You’re probably going to end up repeating yourself this week and it won’t be for lack of effort. Shortell is Minnesota’s No. 2 QB, and Kill has shifted the offense to fit his skill set, which is 1-2-3 pass. Against Syracuse, Shortell passed from 3- and 5-step drops. The Gophers also put him in the shotgun. The main feature was the rhythm. Shortell had the ball out in three to four seconds every drop. It seemed the read was the corners. If they were in press coverage, UM receivers went to a quick slant, where Devin Crawford-Tufts (6-2, 194) used his size and A.J. Barker used his quickness. Barker had just one reception last season, but he leads Minnesota with 14 for 283 yards and four TDs. A player who’s going to want a bounce back from last week is Iowa corner B.J. Lowery. He was called for a personal foul, tripped on a triple move and allowed a TD pass and tweaked an ankle while making a pass breakup. Also, at one point in the first half, linebacker Anthony Hitchens was replaced in the lineup after a few missed reads against the pass. Advantage: Minnesota
Senior cornerback Troy Stoudermire is the headliner. He is the Big Ten record holder in kick return yards with 3,189 and needs just 328 yards for the NCAA record. You will remember him as the lone bright spot — seriously, lone — in the Hawkeyes’ 55-0 victory over the Gophers in ’08. Stoudermire returned nine kicks for 283 yards. He’s capable of scoring or flipping the field at anytime. Barker is UM’s punt returner and he 8.8 yards on six returns. Kicker Josh Wettstein is off to a slow start, making just 4 of 9, but was a clutch 3 of 4 in the triple OT win at UNLV. Iowa’s special teams unit short circuited last week. The onside kick, kick return, kick coverage struggled. Ferentz mentioned on his radio show talking to some respected special teams coaches this week. In the meantime, Iowa’s special teams remain on the lookout for a difference-maker. Advantage: Minnesota
1) Gopher up — Last week’s game against Syracuse turned out to be a showcase for Minnesota football. TCF Bank Stadium filled to a capacity at 50,000. Student tickets were just $10, so that helped, but it also brought that “student section” energy and made nice images for the BTN telecast. Kill has gone from last year’s frightening seizure episode on the sideline and has thrown himself into the Minnesota community, meeting students, shaking hands and even giving out T-shirts. Doesn’t win games, but it might sell tickets and it will create a positive atmosphere. 2) Killer continuity — This isn’t a statement on what Iowa has or doesn’t have in regard to its coaching staff. Ferentz had six positions turnover for various reasons in the offseason. The contrast to Kill’s staff is stark. UM defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has been with Kill since Saginaw Valley in 1995. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover hooked up with Kill in 1999 at Emporia State. This is a staff that came up the hard way together. It’ll be tough to rock its world. 3) Iowa atmosphere — It’s getting ugly around here, which isn’t a shock after last week’s shocking disappointment. With an empty trophy case in the middle of Iowa’s lockerroom, this is the most important Pig game of Ferentz’s era since ’04. Advantage: Minnesota
IOWA WILL WIN IF . . .
The passing game can accentuate the running game and if the defense can shake Shortell’s world. Vandenberg is taking too much of the heat for a passing offense that is stopped up with sight adjustments and too many unread pages in the air. When Iowa goes off the opening script, the passing game gets rickety. Iowa needs a sustained effort here. As for rushing the passer, disruption takes many forms. Any form will work.
MINNESOTA WILL WIN IF . . .
Shortell gets comfortable and the Gophers shutdown Iowa’s rush. Shortell has a gun. He has completed four passes for more than 30 yards this season. Barker gives him an “always open” option who settles in zones and is fearless over the middle. What could make the Gophers a contender for a Florida bowl is their defense. This unit is playing with serious speed and suddenness.
PREDICTION: Iowa 31, Minnesota 28