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Minnesota Football vs. Iowa: The Elite, The Meh & The Ugly

Mmmm. Bacon.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-3) are bringing home the bacon after upsetting the No. 24-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes (6-2) in a 12-10 nail-biter on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

The Elite

The Floyd of Rosedale returns home. The bronze pig is back where he belongs. This much-needed rivalry win put a stop to a number of ugly streaks. First and foremost, it snapped a streak of eight straight losses to Iowa. It was also the Gophers’ first win in Iowa City since 1999, ending a streak of 10 straight road losses to the Hawkeyes. P.J. Fleck recorded his first career win over Iowa and also notched his first road win over a Top 25 opponent in his tenure at Minnesota.

Dragan Kesich. Even with a missed 43-yard field goal attempt while kicking into 20 mph wind in the second quarter, Kesich likely earned himself Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors for the second time this season. His four field goals were all the offense Minnesota could muster and they needed every single one of them to escape Iowa City with a narrow win.

The Gopher defense. I’m not going to pretend that this was an impressive performance, considering Iowa’s offense is one of the worst in college football. But Minnesota took care of business. Even with linebacker Cody Lindenberg missing his seventh straight game, the Gophers were stout against the run, limiting the Hawkeyes’ trio of running backs to 33 rushing yards on 20 carries for an average of 1.65 yards per carry. The defensive line forced three of Minnesota’s four sacks, two of which were strip sacks that the Gophers were able to recover. Minnesota forced three turnovers, including Justin Walley’s game-ending interception. The Gophers also pitched a shutout in the second half and only allowed Iowa to roll up two yards of total offense after halftime.

The refs got it right. Hawkeye fans are in hysterics over the officiating crew’s decision to wipe out Cooper DeJean’s 54-yard punt return for a touchdown, which would have given Iowa the go-ahead score with 90 seconds left in the game. Much of their handwringing stems from a (perhaps willful) misunderstanding of the officiating crew’s ruling, with the fans arguing that DeJean was not signaling for a fair catch. But whether or not he intended to signal for a fair catch is irrelevant. As explained by Big Ten official Tim Odey after the game, any waving motion by a receiving team member on a punt return is by rule an invalid fair catch signal, resulting in the ball being dead as soon as it is caught or recovered. DeJean could clearly be seen waving his left arm as he watched the punt. Thus, the ball was dead and could not be advanced.

The Meh

The Gophers’ ground game. With true freshman running back Darius Taylor back from injury, Minnesota had a fair amount of success on the ground against Iowa. Taylor rushed for 59 yards on 16 carries. He, Zach Evans, and Sean Tyler combined to carry the ball 35 times for 126 rushing yards, averaging 3.6 yards per carry. But with five games left on the schedule, the depth chart at running back is scary thin. Before the game, Bryce Williams was declared out for the season with an undisclosed injury. Then Evans limped off the field late in the second quarter and was sidelined for the second half with a boot on his leg.

The Ugly

Penalties. Minnesota entered Saturday’s game averaging three penalties per game, which ranked sixth nationally. On Iowa’s touchdown drive before halftime, the Gophers were flagged for four penalties alone. Mark Crawford’s 36-yard punt from his own end zone had already gift-wrapped a scoring opportunity for the Hawkeyes, but Minnesota’s lack of discipline rolled out the red carpet. Danny Striggow was flagged for a facemask penalty, negating a third down stop. Justin Walley was flagged for a questionable pass interference penalty in the end zone, setting up at Iowa at the six-yard line. Jah Joyner was then flagged for being offsides, pushing the line of scrimmage up to the three-yard line. After stuffing the Hawkeyes on back-to-back quarterback sneaks on second and third down at the goal line, Tyler Nubin was then flagged for an egregious unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after slapping the football away from Deacon Hill. Iowa scored on the next play to take a 10-3 lead. The Gophers finished the game with seven total penalties.

Fielding kickoffs and punts. Twice, Minnesota’s kick returners couldn’t seem to decide who was going to field the ball. On the kickoff coming out of halftime, Sean Tyler simply had to fall on it at the 10-yard line. Then there is Quentin Redding, who on punt returns seems to be coached to avoid trying to field any punt that may present even the slightest level of difficulty. Instead, he watches the ball roll another 10 or 20 yards, surrendering precious field advantage.

Athan Kaliakmanis. I think it’s fair at this point in the season to be concerned about the Gophers’ quarterback play. Kaliakmanis was 10-of-25 for 126 passing yards in this game. He avoided throwing an interception, though there were a couple close calls. But his accuracy was wildly inconsistent throughout the game. Barring injury, I expect he’ll be the starting quarterback the rest of the season, so he’ll have opportunities to demonstrate improvement. That said, I would urge Fleck to hit the reset button on his passing offense as a whole in the offseason. Not only does Kaliakmanis seem underdeveloped, but the wide receiver position continues to be an issue and Brevyn Spann-Ford appears to be a shell of his former self.

I love the result, but I hate the process. If you know me at all, you know how personal this particular rivalry game is for me. I will never not celebrate a win over Iowa, and I cannot even begin to describe the relief I feel that Minnesota’s losing streak against the Hawkeyes did not extend to nine games. But for six years, Fleck tried to beat Iowa at their own game. And for six years, he lost every time. His seventh try seemed to be following the same pattern and nearly resulted in another crushing loss thanks in part to his stubborn refusal to do what is necessary to put the game away. I’m elated that the Gophers finally won, but my fear is that this will only validate what has been an otherwise fruitless strategy. Fleck needs to change his best, and if six straight losses weren’t enough to force his hand, I’m not sure a win will, either.