Season Record: 4-3 (1-3 B1G)
Head Coach: Kirk Ferentz (139-95, 19th year at Iowa)
2017 S&P+ Overall Ranking: 45th
2016 S&P+ Overall Ranking: 30th
It’s not been a dream season for the Iowa Hawkeyes. The Hawkeyes finished their non-conference schedule unbeaten, including an overtime victory over in-state rival Iowa State. But Iowa has since gone 1-3 in conference play, including three losses by a touchdown or less. Their tough defense has kept them in games, but a lack of execution on offense has kept them from getting over the hump in close games. The Hawkeyes will match up on Saturday with a Minnesota Golden Gophers squad that also has Illinois to thank for their lone Big Ten win. Who will take home the Floyd of Rosedale? Let’s take a closer look.
Penn State, Michigan State, and Northwestern have all three laid out the blueprint for stopping the Hawkeyes’ offense: Bottle up senior running back Akrum Wadley and put the brakes on their running game. Iowa is 3-0 this season when Wadley has rushed for 100 or more yards, but are 1-3 when he has been held to less than 100 rushing yards. Minnesota has been wildly inconsistent in defending the run this season, so we’ll need to see more of the Gopher defense that held Illinois running back Ra’Von Bonner in check (18 carries, 57 rushing yards, 1 touchdown) and less of the Gopher defense that let L.J. Scott have a career night for Michigan State (25 carries, 194 rushing yards, 2 touchdowns).
First-year starting quarterback Nathan Stanley has had a strong sophomore season thus far (116-for-201, 1,513 passing yards, 16 touchdowns, 3 interceptions), in spite of the Hawkeyes’ limited options at wide receiver. JUCO wide receiver Nick Easley has stepped in as Stanley’s top target (31 receptions, 326 receiving yards, 4 touchdowns), a role that was expected to be occupied by senior Matt VandeBerg (18 receptions, 276 receptions, 2 touchdowns) coming into the season. But I would argue that their most dangerous weapons in the passing game are Wadley (18 receptions, 263 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns) and sophomore tight end Noah Fant (16 receptions, 232 receiving yards, 4 touchdowns). Fant is a mismatch nightmare for opposing defenses, and Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has taken advantage.
The offensive line has struggled to open up running lanes for much of the season, but has been strong in pass protection, averaging less than two sacks per game. The unit is missing senior right tackle Ike Boettger, who is out for the season with an Achilles injury, and his replacement has been true freshman Tristan Wirfs. The other four starters are all upperclassmen, including senior center James Daniels and senior right guard Sean Welsh.
Verdict: It all comes down to whether or not the Gopher defense can contain Wadley. The Hawkeyes can’t be allowed to dictate the tempo of the game. Two years ago at Kinnick Stadium, Iowa racked up 272 rushing yards against Minnesota and effectively controlled the entire game, despite a close final score. If the Gophers can’t at least force the Hawkeye offense to beat them through the air on Saturday, they’re in trouble.
Senior linebacker Josey Jewell (70 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble) is the name we’re all tired of hearing. Fortunately, he is graduating after this season. It’s possible Jewell, who leads the Big Ten in tackles, might not even see the field on Saturday. He dressed but did not play against Northwestern last week due to a shoulder injury. I expect him to play, but he is considered “week-to-week,” according to Ferentz.
I doubt he will be, but if Jewell is indeed out against the Gophers, the Hawkeyes will look to three other senior linebackers to lead the defense. Ben Niemann (43 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 4 pass break-ups, 1 fumble recovery) would slide to the middle linebacker spot, with reserve Kevin Ward taking over at outside linebacker. Opposite Ward at the other outside linebacker spot would be second-leading tackler Bo Bower (50 tackles).
The Hawkeyes expect to be without sophomore safety Brandon Snyder, who already missed much of the season while recovering from an ACL injury suffered during spring practice. He saw his first action of the season against Illinois, but then missed the Northwestern game with a knee injury. In his absence, the Hawkeyes have leaned on senior Miles Taylor (30 tackles) and sophomore Amani Hooker (34 tackles, 1 interception, 1 pass break-up) at safety.
The continued absence of Snyder is a blow to the Hawkeyes’ rush defense, which has been exposed as vulnerable in conference play, allowing an average of 182.5 rushing yards per game through four games. Outside of senior defensive tackle Nathan Bazata (26 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 2 sacks), the Hawkeyes’ have been weak up the middle, putting much of the pressure on their linebackers and safeties in run support.
With Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Desmond King gone to the NFL, the Hawkeye secondary has also been left vulnerable, ranking 86th in the country in pass defense (235.4 passing yards per game). Redshirt junior cornerback Joshua Jackson leads the defense with two interceptions. In the pass rush, the Gophers need to watch out for redshirt sophomore defensive end Anthony Nelson, who leads all other Hawkeye defends with five sacks.
Verdict: Which Demry Croft will show up on Saturday? The one who threw three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against Michigan State? Or the one who threw for less than 50 yards against Illinois? If Croft can’t find a rhythm in the passing game against a leaky Hawkeye secondary, nothing will stop Iowa from loading the box and smothering the Gophers’ rushing attack. I don’t think Minnesota will be able to lean exclusively on the running game like they did against Illinois. Croft will need to step up if the Gophers want to win this game.
Prediction: Iowa 20, Minnesota 17. The Gophers haven’t won at Kinnick Stadium since 1999. I’d very much like for that streak to end, but there is too much uncertainty on both sides of the ball for me to predict a Minnesota victory. If the Gophers can stop the run on defense and throw the ball on offense, they’ll have a very good chance of re-claiming the Floyd of Rosedale. But I haven’t seen enough consistency up to this point to feel confident.