Gophers welcome Iowa for Big Ten finale

Dan Miller

Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz doesn’t pull any punches when discussing the current state of his offense.

His descriptions vary from, “We are hardly a well-oiled machine right now,” to “We can’t find anything that even resembles (a running game).”

But amid a host of injuries and shortcomings on offense, No. 19 Iowa (7-2, 5-1 Big Ten) has found a way to win five straight games and is looking for another New Year’s Day bowl game as the Hawkeyes travel to play the Gophers at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Metrodome.

After losing four running backs to season-ending injuries, Ferentz is now forced to play a tailback who started the season fifth on the Iowa’s depth chart.

Sophomore tailback Sam Brownlee, a former walk-on, will start Saturday against the Gophers (6-4, 3-4 Big Ten) in Minnesota’s final Big Ten game.

This season, the Hawkeyes have managed a meager 82.4 yards rushing per game, averaging only 2.2 yards per carry.

“I’ve always been a strong

believer in the running game, and right now we don’t really have one,” Ferentz said.

Like the team’s last five opponents, most people are asking how the so-called “ragtag” Hawkeyes have been able to put together such a successful season.

“I think most teams at the end of the game say, ‘Now, how did that happen again?’ ” Ferentz said. “That’s just the kind of team we are.”

But most opponents also quickly realize the strength of Iowa’s defense.

Linebackers Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway lead the Hawkeyes defense, ranked fourth in the nation in run defense and 10th in overall defense.

“I wouldn’t trade (Hodge and Greenway) for anybody,” Ferentz said. “I know there are a lot of good players out there, and it’s no disrespect to them. But, as a pair, those guys are tops in my mind.”

Minnesota running back Laurence Maroney said ending the year with a solid rushing game would put the Gophers back on track.

“We are going to try and do our best; that’s all I can say,” Maroney said.

The Gophers are also looking to hold an undefeated record at home Saturday.

“We haven’t lost a game here yet,” Minnesota safety Justin Fraley said. “We’ve had our down time, but we can’t focus on what has happened. What’s next is that we got Iowa, and that’s our focus right now.”

Facing a 21-0 first quarter deficit against Wisconsin last week, Minnesota’s offense leaned almost completely on passing the football and was able to rush for only 73 yards in the game.

Ferentz said he thinks he won’t have the luxury of commanding the game offensively, as Wisconsin did, and put Minnesota’s offense on the defensive.

While Ferentz speaks humbly about his team’s ability, he said he knows all too well beating the Gophers would put him in a New Year’s Day or better bowl game for the third-straight year.

“The credit really goes to the players,” Ferentz said. “We’ve had more than our share of bumps and detours. But our players have kept a very positive attitude, and they’ve all been interested in what they can do to help be a solution for the problems that we’ve had.”