Gophers mirror Iowa team of a year ago

Brett Angel

All week long, Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz has racked his brain to find a way to contain Minnesota’s rushing attack.

While some of Ferentz’s Big Ten counterparts might suggest he would be better off trying to solve a Rubik’s cube, the Hawkeyes’ coach can take at least some degree of comfort knowing one thing about Minnesota’s offense.

He coached it last year – kind of.

The Gophers’ 2003 formula for success has been remarkably similar to the one that carried Iowa to the top of the Big Ten standings and eventually the Orange Bowl a year ago.

“Last year, we were really a little bit like the Gophers this year,” Ferentz said. “We kind of got into a rhythm and really got onto a roll the last half of the season. The questions we had early in the year really got solidified.”

Defensive lapses in October’s losses to Michigan and Michigan State cost Minnesota almost any chance at a BCS bowl appearance.

But a consistently strong running game and timely passing have given the Gophers their first nine-win season in 98 years and a legitimate shot at playing on New Year’s Day.

“This year, we resemble what Iowa was last year,” Mason said. “They ran the ball extremely well and passed the ball effectively. That’s what we’ve been doing.”

Iowa’s rushing offense in 2002 was not quite as impressive as the Minnesota version that has amassed 40 touchdowns on the ground this season. But the Hawkeyes did average 214 yards per game and five yards per carry.

The focal point of that running game, senior Fred Russell, will be in Iowa’s backfield Saturday when the Gophers (9-2, 5-2 Big Ten) travel to Iowa City, Iowa, for their final regular-season game against the Hawkeyes (7-3, 3-3).

But the offensive line that cleared the way for Russell last season returned only one starter to this year’s team. As a result, Iowa has been forced to rely more on its defense in 2003.

The Hawkeyes responded by fielding a defensive unit currently ranked 11th in the country and second in the Big Ten.

Sophomore linebackers Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge lead the conference in tackles per game with 10.7 and 10.3, respectively. Matt Roth and Howard Hodges are both among the top four in sacks, with 9.5 and 9, respectively.

Despite losing three defensive starters to injury in the last month, Iowa allows an average of just 80.2 yards per game on the ground, setting the stage for what should be a battle in the trenches Saturday against Minnesota’s offensive line.

“I love the challenge,” Minnesota offensive tackle Rian Melander said. “We all do. We’re really looking forward to what happens on the field.”

For all of the similarities in the running game, the parallels between Iowa’s 2002 team and Minnesota this year might be most evident at the quarterback position.

Last year, Brad Banks had a breakout season for the Hawkeyes, earning Big Ten Most Valuable Player honors and finishing second in Heisman Trophy voting before graduating to the NFL.

Minnesota quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq and co-offensive coordinator Tony Petersen talked during the offseason about having a Banks type of year in Abdul-Khaliq’s final season.

While he will not be attending the Downtown Athletic Club in New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation, Abdul-Khaliq has done everything Minnesota’s coaching staff has asked of him this season. He is second nationally in passing efficiency and has thrown 17 touchdowns against just four interceptions.

Even Ferentz cannot help but notice the similarities.

“He’s a great competitor and for me it’s reminiscent of what Brad (Banks) did for us last year,” Ferentz said. “He’s just making so many great plays for them and great decisions. He just compliments that offense so well.”

Whether Ferentz’s familiarity with Minnesota’s offensive scheme gives him an advantage in defending will be determined Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

Either way, Iowa’s head coach will know better than anyone what to expect.

Lots to feel good about

Minnesota coach Glen Mason would not answer questions Wednesday night regarding the status of starting quarterback Abdul-Khaliq.

“I’m not talking about it, but I’m in a good mood,” Mason said with a laugh.

Asked if reporters could then read between the lines, Mason responded, “I guess.”

Mason confirmed the shoulder injury Abdul-Khaliq suffered last week against Wisconsin was not nearly as serious as initially thought.

The shoulder healed fast enough that Abdul-Khaliq has been splitting practice snaps with backup Benji Kamrath since Tuesday.

“I’m just happy to be practicing, and the shoulder is pretty good so hopefully things keep going well,” Abdul-Khaliq said.

He said the injury was a sprain “somewhere between the sternum and the clavicle.”