This is where it has to happen for Minnesota. Iowa averaged 7.28 yards on just 25 carries last season against the Gophers. Most of Minnesota's front seven has returned from last season, with juco linebackers Damien Wilson and De'Vondre Campbell and DE Theiren Cockran being the new starters. Led by tackle Ra'Shede Hageman (16.5 career tackles for loss), the D-line has three two-year starters. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill is old school and believes you win with strong run defense. In five of their seven losses last season, Minnesota allowed more than 6 yards a carry.
Kill this week: “It’s pretty simple. We’ll put up on a board here today is that you’ve got to play with a low-pad level, you’d better stay in your gap. You’ve got to make sure you fit right as a linebacker, you’ve got to be able to tackle. You’ve got to your eyes have got to be in the right place, or they’ll kick your tail in with a play-action pass. I just gave you five things that it’s going to take on defense.”
Minnesota returns most of the players who lost at the line of scrimmage last year. Iowa's offensive line has been given a ton of credit for the Hawkeyes' success running the ball so far this season (sixth in the Big Ten and 24th nationally with 244.0 yards a game), but let's look at who Iowa is missing from last year's Gopher herding: guard Matt Tobin and center James Ferentz. This is significant. Sophomore Austin Blythe has been solid in moving from guard to center, but Iowa's inside OL faces its stiffest test yet. Sophomore Jordan Walsh continues to rotate with junior Andrew Donnal. Walsh has great feet, but can get overpowered. Donnal isn't as quick but can anchor. Tobin made the Philadelphia Eagles' 53-man roster; Ferentz was a three-year starter.
The Gophers' run defense has shown statistical improvement. They are No. 21 in the nation allowing just 102.75 yards a game (against FBS teams that rank No. 58, 94 and 117 in rushing offense). Conversely, Iowa has done its rushing against the FBS Nos. 79, 110 and 120.
Iowa is going to have to send help on Hageman. It's either going to have to create some conflict of assignment (misdirection) or hope RB Mark Weisman, who had 177 vs. Minnesota last year, can gain the edge without too much east-west running on the outside zone. Power and lead plays pay off after 20 of them take a physical toll. This is the game for Minnesota.
Advantage: Slight Iowa
The Gophers lost junior cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun in week 2 against New Mexico State when he suffered a torn ACL and MCL in his knee. When the injury happened, Kill said Boddy-Calhoun was UM's top performer at corner so far this season. However, the Gophers went into the season planning to start Derrick Wells and Eric Murray at corners. Wells worked back from injuries and earned the spot. The 6-0, 206-pounder made 11 starts at safety last season and was a preseason fourth-team all-Big Ten pick in Phil Steele's preseason magazine.
The Gophers rank No. 98 in the country in pass defense, allowing 270.0 yards a game. Opponents have completed 65.8 percent of their passes (98 of 149) this season. This number skews big time after UM faced down San Jose State quarterback David Fales last weekend. Fales, an NFL draft pick waiting to happen, threw for 439 yards, three TDs and two picks against UM. Other QBs have put up numbers against the Gophers, but haven't done enough to really even push them.
Minnesota's safeties are veterans. Senior Brock Vereen and junior Cedric Thompson combine for 38 career starts. Vereen is a former cornerback. Corner Eric Murray is a first-year starter. He broke up four passes against UNLV. Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will have fewer buttons to push against the passing game this week. For much of the second half vs. Fales, he played seven defensive backs and dared SJSU to run. It couldn't.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz preaches balance. Iowa isn't there, rushing 67 percent of the time (218 of 324 offensive plays). This has been a winner and might have to continue to be. Of course, for Iowa to be a healthy offense, it has to develop its passing game.
Sophomore Jake Rudock has been heady, dependable and accurate. The next step for him is stretching defenses. No, that's not all Rudock, who ranks between No. 6 and 8 in every passing category in the Big Ten (really, it's kind of an anomaly). It's a needed step for the entire passing game. In that regard, all eyes on junior WR Damond Powell. He's a flash, catching three passes for 132 yards and a TD this season. Speed is the obvious factor that shapes his game. He lines up and there's a corner and safety help. He's probably taking the top off the defense. How much does size have to do with how Iowa uses him? He's listed at 5-11, 180. That might be pushing it. He's been targeted for one wide receiver screen this season.
When do defenses bring the hammer down on junior Kevonte Martin-Manley? He's fifth in the Big Ten with 20 receptions. The rest of Iowa's receiving corps has orbited around reliable, but no one has jumped off the page. Minnesota played seven DBs in much of the second half last week. It can morph a coverage to find Martin-Manley. What about the tight ends? Junior Ray Hamilton seems to be climbing, catching more passes in the last two weeks (five) than he had in his career (three). This part of Iowa's game has most of the prominent pieces identified, it just hasn't put it all together. Can Iowa's receivers challenge UM's man coverage?
Minnesota's rush game has been like a pit stop. Pull in with a flat tire, zip, whir, whatever other power tool noise you can think of and off you go, brand new and ready to go.
Consider: Donnell Kirkwood, UM's leading rusher from '12 (925 yards), suffered an ankle injury in the opener and hasn't had a carry since. No panic. Running backs David Cobb (5-11, 225) and Rodrick Williams (5-11, 235) have combined for 609 yards and eight TDs.
Quarterback Mitch Leidner (6-2, 232), who's in position to make his second career start this week, debuted against SJSU with 151 rushing yards, four TDs and the Big Ten freshman of the week.
The strides the Gophers have made in the running game over '12 is borderline ridiculous. Last season after four games, UM had 735 yards, six TDs and averaged 4.03 yards a carry. This year, the Gophers have 1,129 yards, 16 TDs and average 5.7 a rush. UM already has more rushing TDs this season than it had all last year. It has two 300-plus performances, the first since 306 against Miami (Ohio) in week 2 of 2007.
When Kill arrived, Minnesota played a few O-linemen before they were ready. Now, that's paying off. Junior guard Zac Epping has started 25 straight games. Sophomore Josh Campion has started 17 straight starts (every game of his career). Junior guard Caleb Bak has 15 straight starts. Redshirt freshman Ben Lauer got the start over junior Marek Lenkiewicz last week.
Iowa's rush defense wasn't challenged against Western Michigan last week, so its sterling stats remain shiny. Iowa is one of just 16 teams in the nation that allows less than 100 yards rushing (91.50) a game and is just one of three that have yet to allow a rushing TD (Michigan and Texas State). On paper, Iowa's FBS opponents have been horrible running the football. WMU is No. 99 and Iowa State is 101 in the nation. The effort against Northern Illinois does, however, jump off the page. The Huskies are No. 11 in the nation with 295.33 rushing yards a game. Iowa held NIU to 162, 42 of which came off a fake punt.
Last season, the Hawkeyes held Minnesota to 102 rushing yards on 32 carries. Most of that personnel group is back. You could easily argue Iowa has upgraded in the front seven. Tackle Carl Davis has become a fixture. End Drew Ott has been active, with QB pressure and 15 tackles. He seems well schooled for the read-option that the Gophers will occasionally throw.
Leidner can move, but it's not pure zone read. The Gophers want to play power football, with some gap and power schemes. That's part of UM's identity, but it's also into the inside zone, more so than last season.
Iowa's offense hasn't found a balance. Minnesota's offense is hopping on one leg. The Gophers have run the ball 76 percent of the time and has passed for more than 100 yards in just two of its four games. Leidner completed just five of 12 passes last week. The Gophers are No. 120 in the nation with 105.3 yards a game in passing offense.
UM has been able to get away with it because it has pushed around its opponents and contained them on defense. That's the question this week. For Minnesota's passing game to work, it's more about timing than volume. Last week, Leidner completed just 5 of 12 passes. He completed a 37-yarder to K.J. Maye during a TD drive that gave UM a 20-10 lead in the second quarter. A 22-yard completion to Isaac Fruechte fueled a field goal drive and a 29-17 lead in the third quarter. It can work. You've probably flushed Iowa's 28-17 loss at Northwestern last season, but the Wildcats built a 28-3 lead and completed just 7 of 10 passes.
It's a limited sample size for Leidner, but he has yet to throw a pick. QB Philip Nelson, who began the season as starter before suffering a hamstring injury against Western Illinois, has nine career TD passes to 10 interceptions. Minnesota's receivers are kind of a mishmash. Redshirt freshman TE Maxx Williams leads the Gophers (five receptions, 99 yards, TD). He made the Semper Fidelis prep all-star game as a punter. Senior WR Derrick Engel (7 for 93 yards) transferred from Division II Winona State in 2011. Maye has bounced between WR and RB. Fruechte caught 19 passes last season.
True freshman Desmond King will make his fourth start at CB. Sophomore Jordan Lomax remains out with a hamstring injury. CB B.J. Lowery was named Thorpe Award defensive back of the week this week after returning two interceptions for TDs. That's one more TD than UM has passed for this season (1 TD vs. 7 INTs). Minnesota has the running chops to sell play-action. Iowa's secondary will once again be caught in that middle-ground of eyeing a running QB and staying with their receiver in coverage. Iowa stopped NIU's Jordan Lynch and the zone read, but allowed three TD passes and 275 yards.
There will be blitzing. Is Minnesota's passing game refined enough -- simply, has it felt the kind of pressure to come through under pressure -- to beat it?
Defensive back Marcus Jones has a punt return (65 yards at New Mexico State) for a touchdown and a kickoff return for a score (98 yards vs. UNLV) this year. He's the first Gopher to do that in the same season. That was Minnesota's first punt return for a TD since Oct. 5, 1996. Jones is third in the Big Ten with 13.14 a punt return and fourth in kick returns at 26.67. Minnesota is second in kick coverage (17.10) and 11th in punt coverage (8.33).
Kicker Chris Hawthorne is 5 of 7 with his two misses coming from 50 and 51. He's missed three PATs, including having one blocked last week.
Iowa saw weakness in WMU's special teams last week and attacked. Wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley returned two punts for TDs and had 184 return yards. He now leads the nation (world) with 31.14 yards a punt return. It'll probably be catch to the more sedate approach for Iowa this week. Iowa allows just 2.50 yards a punt return, No. 11 in the nation. Iowa is a middle-of-the-road kick coverage team (21.86).
Punter Connor Kornbrath continues to improve. Only eight of his 21 punts have been returned. Kicker Mike Meyer is 5 of 6 this year, with a long of 44 and a miss from 33.
1) Confidence — Both programs are showing it in bundles. Hageman is sort of the voice of Minnesota. He's the most recognizable player. Before the SJSU game, he openly talked about getting the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy back from Iowa. Kill has made this trophy game a priority for his program. It's a smart move. Today's winner virtually clinches a bowl game. Iowa's confidence is less bravado and more in the incremental growth of players like DT Carl Davis, WR Jacob Hillyer and QB Jake Rudock. 2) Recent history — It's kind of a mixed bag. Yes, Minnesota has won two of the last three, including both games at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers recovered onside kicks in both games and won by a total of four points. Iowa averaged 7.68 a rush and dragged Minnesota up and down the field in a 31-13 victory at Kinnick Stadium last year. The physical nature of the victory is something Kill has constantly reminded his players of in the run-up this week: "They honestly just kicked our butt. They kicked it for four quarters. They didn’t kick it for a half. They lined up and kicked our butt for four quarters. Very disturbing as a head football coach to have it drove up our tail end like the way we had it drove up our tail end.” That's some professional chiding. 3) Home front — The last road team to win in this series was Iowa in 2008, 55-0, in the Gophers' final game at the Metrodome. Iowa has found ways to lose at TCF. Minnesota's official school site published a guide on "How to be a Minnesota Fan" this week. No. 8 on that list was "Hate Iowa." Minnesota is psyched for this one. If it loses, that hate turned inward will require therapy (hockey season). Iowa is in the Gophers' head. That's playing with emotional fire.
Iowa passes for 250-plus yards and doesn't throw an interception. The rest of it evens out, right? Iowa's OL is probably a step behind last year's. Iowa's D-line is probably a step ahead of last year's. This is another hurdle/milestone for Rudock, the first conference road start. He has a chance to give Iowa an extra dimension. (Odd stat: Iowa hasn't passed for more than 200 yards on Minnesota since 2008.)
It can penetrate Iowa's O-line and keep Weisman running east-west and his feet chopping and not running. Minnesota has a huge edge in disruption on Iowa. The Gophers have 30 tackles for loss to just 16 for the Hawkeyes. If UM can keep Weisman off-balance, it takes away Iowa's most reliable offensive weapon and throws the Hawkeyes' offense off schedule. That would be crippling for a rookie QB on the road.
PREDICTION: Iowa 31, Minnesota 21