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Minnesota Football: RoWINg to Iowa - Opponent Preview

The Hawkeyes’ defense has their work cut out for them

Iowa v Wisconsin Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

On the eve of the battle for the Floyd of Rosedale, we take a look at what stands between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and their prized pig: the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Are they any good this year?

2019 Record: 6-3 (3-3, 4th B1G West)
S&P+ Ranking: 23rd

I guess? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. They’ve played three teams in the Top 25 — Michigan, Penn State, and Wisconsin — and lost to all three of them. They were at least competitive in those games and lost by less than a touchdown in each of them, which I suppose counts for something. The best of their six wins was against a 5-4 Iowa State squad.

Can they score on offense?

Iowa is one of the most offensively challenged teams in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes are averaging 139.2 rushing yards per game (10th in the Big Ten, 95th in the country), 242.6 passing yards per game (4th, Tied-54th), and 24.1 points per game (11th, T-97th). And their struggles have been magnified against opponents ranked in the Top 25.

In their three losses to ranked opponents, only three of Iowa’s 35 offensive possessions have resulted in touchdowns and two were on long touchdown passes.

The Hawkeyes lean on a trio of running backs — juniors Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young and freshman Tyler Goodson — to carry the load on the ground. None of them have been spectacular, but Sargent has been the most consistent of the three. He leads the team in carries (102), rushing yards (464), and rushing touchdowns (4). He is more of a traditional three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust back than an explosive home run threat. Sargent has only had two carries go for more than 20 yards all season. Goodson has been active in the passing game, at times splitting out at wide receiver. The freshman has 20 receptions for 143 receiving yards.

Much of the blame for the lackluster rushing attack has been attributed to the playcalling and the offensive line. Iowa lost two starters from a season ago and injuries have taken a toll this season. Left tackle Alaric Jackson and right guard Kyler Schott have both been banged up and missed games. In addition to their uncharacteristic struggles run blocking, the Hawkeyes’ offensive line has not been able to consistently keep senior quarterback Nate Stanley clean in the pocket. They are currently averaging more than two sacks allowed per game.

In his third year as starter, Stanley has been fairly consistent, completing 60 percent of his passes and throwing for 2,158 passing yards. But after racking up 26 touchdowns through the air in each of the last two seasons, Stanley only has a dozen to his name nine games into this season. His worst game of the season came against Michigan, when they blitzed him for eight sacks and forced him into throwing three interceptions. Hawkeye fans’ biggest criticism of Stanley has been that he has a tendency to turtle in big games, especially on the road.

Last year, the Hawkeyes relied almost exclusively on their tight ends in the passing game. But both Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson are playing on Sundays now, and no tight end on the current roster has been able to fill their shoes. So Nate Stanley has had to involve his wide receivers more. Junior Brandon Smith was expected to be their leader at the position, but he has been sidelined with an ankle injury and is not expected to play against Minnesota. With Smith sidelined, redshirt freshman Tyrone Tracy has emerged with breakout games against Northwestern and Wisconsin, recording seven receptions for 218 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

Junior wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette will get his catches. He has hauled in at least three receptions in every game this season, but he has not scored a receiving touchdown since Week 2 against Rutgers. Redshirt freshman Nico Ragaini is another possession receiver who has been something of a safety valve for Stanley at times, leading the team in receptions with 37.

Iowa kicker Keith Duncan might be their chief scoring threat, as he has as many field goals (22) as the team has touchdowns. With four games left to go, including a bowl game, Duncan already holds the school’s single-season record for field goals.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

Well, the Hawkeyes’ defense is better than their offense.

Iowa actually ranks 10th in the country in passing yards allowed per game (177.6), but there are vulnerabilities to be exploited in their secondary. Purdue wide receiver David Bell can attest to that, as he tagged the Hawkeyes for 13 receptions, 197 receiving yards, and one touchdown. Junior starting cornerback Matt Hankins was the man in coverage against Bell that game, and he’ll likely get acquainted with Tyler Johnson or Rashod Bateman on Saturday. On the opposite side of the field, fifth-year senior cornerback Michael Ojemudia had problems limiting Wisconsin’s Quintez Cephus a week ago, as he managed five receptions for 94 yards and a touchdown.

The Hawkeyes are solid at safety, led by junior Geno Stone. Stone and free safety Jack Koerner will be operating as field generals on Saturday if Iowa is without senior linebacker Kristian Welch. Welch has missed three games due to injury, and the Hawkeyes have been forced to rely on a pair of freshman linebackers — Dillon Doyle and Jack Campbell — to fill his shoes. Those two experienced a trial by fire against the Badgers, as running back Jonathan Taylor ran roughshod over their defensive front to the tune of 250 rushing yards. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Djimon Colbert is now the elder statesman at the position by default.

The defensive line has been a work in progress for much of the season. Junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa was the only returning starter this season up front, and even he is having a quiet year rushing the passer, by his standards. Epenesa gets a lot of attention from opposing offensive lines, and that has allowed defensive end Chauncey Golston to have success, leading his fellow defensive linemen with 22 tackles but only two sacks. The Hawkeyes rank 73rd nationally in sacks, averaging about two per game. That may not bode well for an Iowa defensive front that won’t want Tanner Morgan to get comfortable in the pocket.

I’m very curious to see how Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker plans to defend Minnesota. Their M.O. as a program for decades now has been to hone in on stopping the run first and trust their defensive backs to limit the passing game in coverage, but that seems like a recipe for disaster with their lack of a consistent pass rush and the struggles the Hawkeyes have had in the secondary against play-making wide receivers (i.e. what the Gophers have in spades). They went that route against Wisconsin but it didn’t really work all that well. Jack Coan had two touchdowns through the air and Taylor, as I mentioned already, did what he does.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

The Gophers haven’t won in Iowa City since 1999. Time to end that losing streak and bring Floyd home. Iowa also represents the last stop on the Robb Smith Revenge Tour, and I don’t think they’ll be putting up 48 points again. Minnesota 27, Iowa 10.