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RoWINg to Iowa - Opponent Preview

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Save the pig. Save the world.

Iowa State v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

It’s Hate Week. But I don’t need to tell you that. We all know what’s at stake: a beautiful bronze pig named Floyd. Saturday, the Minnesota Golden Gophers will attempt to free Floyd from the clutches of the Iowa Hawkeyes. Both squads are 3-1, coming off a bye week after a loss. So which team has the edge? Let’s take a closer look.

Were they any good last year?

Record: 8-5 (4-5, T-3rd B1G West)
S&P+ Overall Ranking: 49th

Ask any Hawkeye fan about last season and they’ll start talking about the Ohio State game before you even finish your sentence. It was a bizarre 55-24 beatdown that likely cost the Buckeyes a spot in the College Football Playoff, and Iowa fans clung to that inexplicable victory during what was an otherwise mediocre season that included losses to Penn State, Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Purdue (at home on Senior Day).

What about this year?

Record: 3-1 (0-1, T-4th B1G West)
S&P+ Overall Ranking: 27th

They might be the second best team in the Big Ten West, but that isn’t saying much considering the rest of the division (outside of Wisconsin) is a mess.

The Hawkeyes looked strong in their first three games of the season, smothering Northern Illinois, Iowa State, and FCS Northern Iowa. But then came a night game against the Badgers, who took control of the game in the final minutes of the fourth quarter to walk out of Kinnick Stadium with a 28-17 victory, the Heartland Trophy, and a commanding presence atop the Big Ten West.

Can they score on offense?

The Hawkeyes aren’t explosive, but they’ll find their way to the end zone.

Junior quarterback Nate Stanley is back under center after throwing for 2,437 yards and 26 touchdowns a season ago. Thus far, his completion percentage is up from 55.8% to 62.7%, but he has three interceptions through four games. Stanley had six interceptions all of last season.

Per Iowa tradition, in lieu of an actual wide receiver corps, the Hawkeyes rely on a pair of tight ends — sophomore T.J. Hockenson and junior Noah Fant — to create some semblance of a passing attack. Both tight ends have the size — 6’5’’, 240+ lbs. — and athleticism to create mismatches for opposing defenses. Fant, in particular, is a red zone weapon, with four touchdowns on the season. If a wide receiver does happen to record a reception, expect it to be either senior Nick Easley or sophomore Ihmir Smith-Marsette.

No real workhorse has emerged at running back, but Iowa will utilize a trio of sophomore rushers to get their ground game going against Minnesota. Toren Young leads his committee cohorts with 49 carries and 268 rushing yards. Young isn’t the type of back who will make a lot of defenders miss, but he is a downhill runner who doesn’t shy away from contact. Ivory Kelly-Martin is more of a speedster, and he had the most success against Wisconsin, rushing for 72 yards on 14 attempts. Mekhi Sargent, a JUCO transfer from Iowa Western Community College, rounds out the crew and leads all other backs with three touchdowns on the season.

The offensive line is strong, with three seniors at the center and guard positions.

Since 2015, Iowa is 32-2 when rushing for 100 yards or more. Prior to their game against Wisconsin two weeks ago, that record was 32-1. The Gopher defense will need to rise to the challenge and stop the run after allowing 262 rushing yards to Maryland.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

Points will be at a premium against the toughest defense the Gophers have faced up to his point.

With the problems Minnesota has had protecting true freshman quarterback Zack Annexstad — eight sacks allowed in the first four games — the immediate concern is the Hawkeyes’ formidable pass rush. Iowa has a pair of veteran edge rushers in redshirt senior Parker Hesse and redshirt junior Anthony Nelson, who have combined for four sacks together. True freshman defensive end A.J. Epenesa leads the team with four sacks on his own through the first three games of the season before being neutralized against Wisconsin.

The Hawkeyes’ defensive line has been their best asset up to this point, with a pair of seniors at defensive tackle to complement Hesse and Nelson. But the Badgers were able to counter that with a big, athletic, and disciplined offensive line that opened up running lanes and allowed their backs to get to the second level, paving the way for 210 rushing yards against Iowa. I’m not so sure the Gophers will be able to replicate that on Saturday.

At linebacker, senior Jack Hockaday is in his first year at starting linebacker and has made the most of it thus far, leading the team in tackles with 28. Junior Kristian Welch is right behind him with 26. Their biggest question mark this week will be the status of sophomore linebacker Nick Niemann, who is out for several weeks after suffering a leg injury against Wisconsin. It’s not certain who will replace him and there is very little experience on the depth chart, as the Hawkeyes are replacing all three starting linebackers from last season.

Where Iowa might be most vulnerable is in the secondary. Redshirt senior Jake Gervase and junior Amani Hooker provide a veteran presence at the safety positions, but sophomore Matt Hankins and redshirt juinor Michael Ojemudia are both works in progress at cornerback, with no depth behind them either. Against Wisconsin, in particular, the Hawkeyes’ young defensive backs afforded Badgers’ receivers plenty of cushion, allowing far too many easy catches. The secondary also suffered a number of mental lapses with how much attention Badgers running Jonathan Taylor required, which opened the door for Alex Hornibrook to burn them with the play-action.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

This feels like a mismatch for the Gophers. To be successful on offense, Minnesota needs to protect quarterback Zack Annexstad, but the Hawkeyes boast one of the top pass rushes in the nation, averaging more than three sacks per game. The Gophers’ offensive line has struggled to open running lanes for their freshman backs, and will need to do so against an Iowa defensive front that has the fourth-best rushing defense in the country. If Minnesota can’t keep their offense on the field, the Gopher defense is going to eventually wear down, regardless of how well they’ve patched the hole where Antoine Winfield, Jr. should be. Iowa 21, Minnesota 10.