Hate week will soon reach its culmination at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday evening. In order to prepare for another titanic clash to see who claims the beautiful Floyd of Rosedale, I asked Ross (aka RossWB), one of the editing managers at Black Heart Gold Pants, a few questions about the Hawkeyes and our upcoming showdown. Here is what transpired.
The Daily Gopher: Welcome to hate week. Congrats on the empty 9-0 record so far this season. I mean being undefeated is impressive... I guess... but if a team doesn't beat anyone of importance, do they really make a sound? Oh, what's that you say? The College Football Playoff committee ranked you 4th? Do they know you haven't played a team better than 30th in the country in F/+ rating? Do they know the wins you're are hanging your hat on are an ugly win against Corey Clement-less Wisconsin (30th) in Madison and a thrashing of 44th ranked (F/+) Northwestern at a half-empty Ryan Field? Just wondering what your thoughts were because... THEY AIN'T PLAYED NOBODY PAWWWWWWL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
RossWB from BHGP: I think you've been possessed by some SEC fans. Or perhaps Baylor fans. Would you like me to call an exorcist for you? They might be able to expunge those demons from your soul. Wait, you're a Minnesota fan, you don't have a soul. GRR HATE HATE HATE HATE.
I'm tired of talking about the schedule. There's no blood left in that stone. It is what it is and everyone can find some stats that support the angle they want to take on it. I know Iowa's 9-0 and they've beaten everyone they played. I know if they keep doing that they're going to be playing somewhere really good around New Year's Day (likely in the College Football Playoff), no matter what the HATERZ say.
TDG: Ok, in all seriousness, Iowa has put together an impressive and unexpected season that has them knocking on the door of the CFP in one of the most unexpected turn of events in recent college football memory. This is coming off the heels of an underwhelming 7-6 season that had many a Hawkeye fan calling for Coach Ferentz to be relieved of his duties. What is the number one biggest "big picture" difference between this year and last year that has allowed Iowa to accomplish such unexpected success?
RossWB: The biggest difference? C.J. Beathard cut his hair, of course.
No, seriously, I think the biggest change has just been Ferentz taking a comprehensive look at the program and making a host of small changes. Iowa football in 2015 certainly isn't dramatically different than it's been the last few years, but he's made a lot of small changes that have paid off. Things like switching up practice times, juggling a few of the position coaching responsibilities, being more aggressive in the playcalling, and shaking up the depth chart in key ways (moving the linebackers around and, most notably, naming Beathard the starting QB). It was hard not to watch Iowa football last year and not think that they were stagnant and stuck in a rut. The entire program wasn't broken beyond repair, but it definitely needed to go into the shop and get a complete examination.
TDG: It's hate week so some unnecessary internet sparring is expected. Heck, it's mandatory. But I am shocked by the complete dismissal of Minnesota by Iowa fans on the interwebs. Sure, we hate each other. But didn't Minnesota curb stomp Iowa last year to the tune of 51-14? And even though the Gophers are an underwhelming 4-5 on the year, Iowa fans do know that the Gophers, according to S&P+, have played the 6th hardest schedule in the country as opposed to the Hawkeyes, who have played the 93rd toughest schedule in the country? I'm not saying that the Gophers will win, since they haven't won in Kinnick since 1999 but Hawkeye fans are certainly taking no heed to the old axiom, "Pride cometh before the fall."
RossWB: Last year was last year. It has no bearing on this year's results. Iowa beat Minnesota 55-0 in 2008 (RIP, Kinnick North) and the next year they struggled to crack double digits (luckily the Gophers continued to struggle to crack zero). Every year is different and it's not exactly going out on a very big limb to suggest that a) this year's Iowa team is much improved from last year's team and b) this year's Minnesota team is more limited than last year's team.
That said, I think Iowa fans probably are getting caught up a bit in the shiny rankings and 9-0 versus 4-5. There's no doubt that the Gophers have played a tougher schedule and that's factored into all the losses they've suffered. Minnesota has kept it tight against TCU, Michigan, and Ohio State this year, which is impressive. Their offense has been stagnant, but they did erupt in impressive fashion against Minnesota (until the end of the game). I expect the Gophers to be fired up and I expect them to be tough and physical and to try and punch Iowa in the mouth from the beginning of the game. I don't expect them to roll over for Iowa, nor do I expect Iowa to blow them off the field. But I'm not too worried (yet) about Iowa losing focus for this game and I think Iowa matches up well with Minnesota.
TDG: Both of these teams' strength lies in their defense. Iowa is ranked 13th in S&P+ defensive rating, while the Gophers are a respectable 26th. How has Iowa been able to continue such a staunch defense in the face of losing several players like defensive end Drew Ott? With Minnesota recently going to the air more often in the last four games or so, what kind of adjustments do you expect to see the Hawkeyes make to shut down both the pass and the run?
RossWB: The defense has actually done a pretty good job of avoiding injuries on that side of the ball, outside of the season-ender to Drew Ott, which was certainly a big blow. There have been a few minor injuries in the secondary, but nothing that's kept guys out of action for several weeks, which has been a plus. Minnesota has struggled to run the ball a lot this year and Iowa's run defense has been rock solid (11th in defensive rushing S&P+), so I don't expect the Gophers to have a lot of success running the ball. I expect the Gophers to air it out, to mixed results. If they target Desmond King (leading the NCAA with 8 interceptions), that's going to go poorly. If they target Greg Mabin, they'll likely have more success. But Iowa's 27th in the nation in defensive passing S&P+, so they're not really that bad in pass defense, either. I'm not sure what adjustments Iowa will make -- they tend to stick to their basic approach, game in and game out. The one wrinkle might be how much they use their Raider package -- they've tended to use that on 3rd downs to generate pressure by blitzing linebackers from stand-up positions. Iowa wants to get pressure from the front four, but if they aren't able to do that (and losing Ott has certainly hurt them in that department), they won't be afraid to send blitzers to get after Leidner.
TDG: On the other side of the ball, both sides have suffered through periods of stagnation. Iowa ranks 44th in S&P+ offensive rating, which isn't terrible while Minnesota ranks 89th which is, in fact, terrible. Surprisingly, Iowa's passing S&P+ rating (50th) is higher than their rushing S&P+ rating (63rd). Can you explain this particular phenomenon? Has CJ Beathard really made the difference between this year and last year when it comes to the Hawkeye offense?
RossWB: Beathard's play has definitely made a big difference between last year's offense and this year's offense, no question. He's added a much-needed element of explosiveness to the offense that wasn't there before. He's averaging 7.6 yards per attempt, which is 4th best in the Big Ten, behind only Nate Sudfeld, Cardale Jones, and Connor Cook. That's a good half-yard more per attempt than Jake Rudock averaged at Iowa; over the course of a game (and a season) that adds up. Beathard's arm strength has benefited Iowa's offense in a few ways -- he can push the downfield well and open things up that way and he can also get the ball out faster on short passes near the line of scrimmage, which makes those passes more effective.
But I'd say the other thing that's made the difference for Iowa has been the vastly improved running game. The offensive line has done a great job in run blocking this year, opening up plenty of holes for Iowa's running backs (who have done a tremendous job of running through those holes for big gains this year). Iowa also isn't all stretch play, stretch play, stretch play when they run the ball. There's more inside zone! Pulling guards! Toss plays! It's a brave new world!
TDG: Could you briefly describe some players for Iowa who will have a major impact on Saturday's proceedings?
RossWB: On offense, the key players are going to be Beathard and the running backs. I already covered Beathard above, but as he goes, the Hawkeye offense goes. And I say "the running backs" because it's not clear who will be the top guy in that position this week. I'm hesitant to say too much about it for fear of taunting AIRBHG, but... Iowa appears to have four pretty healthy and effective running backs available this week. LeShun Daniels, the starter at the beginning of the season, is healthy and ready to go. Jordan Canzeri, who started for several weeks and ran for 700 yards, appears to be back from a high ankle sprain he suffered three weeks ago. Akrum Wadley, who replaced Canzeri and has ran for over 400 yards over the last three weeks, suffered an ankle injury last week, but seems to be available for this week. Iowa's going to try to establish the run on Saturday and they're probably going to ride whoever ends up being the most effective runner.
On defense, I think King will make his presence known in some fashion (he's also a threat in the return game on special teams), but I think the real keys will be in the front seven. If Nate Meier and Parker Hesse can control the edge in the running game and generate a pass rush, it's going to be a long day for Minnesota on offense. Likewise, Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann have been impactful at the linebacker position this year, so we'll be looking for them to have big games, too.
TDG: College football rivalry games often become strange, bizarre, and completely incomprehensible. Texas beating Oklahoma this year is becoming more inexplicable by the week. Michigan grabbed defeat from the clutches of victory earlier this season, seeing their win probability go from 99.8% to 0% on the final play of the game. Crazy things happen when people who strongly dislike each other meet. Thrown in that the game is being under the lights, the Gophers announcing this week that Tracy Claeys is their head coach going forward, and Iowa finally being patting on the back by the national media/pundits/committee members and everyone telling them how great they are and you get a bizarre and peculiar set of circumstances for this game. Considering all the insanity, the x's and o's, and the fact that college football is utterly unpredictable, what are your predictions for the game and who takes home the most beautiful trophy in all the land, Floyd of Rosedale?
RossWB: There's a part of me that's worried about Iowa losing focus for this game, given all the distractions going on right now. But that's a very small part of me. This team feels different and I'm not really that worried about them not being focused for this game. I don't think Iowa has forgotten what happened in this game last year, which should provide some motivation for this game. I think they're going to be fired up to play under the lights and in new uniforms. I think they're excited to keep this whole crazy season rolling along. My guess is that Minnesota comes out fired up and keeps it close for most of the first half, but a late score gives Iowa a two-score lead at halftime and then they push it further in the second half. I'll take Iowa 31, Minnesota 17.