Gophers Preview: Minnesota vs. Iowa

Luke Middendorf

>Last Week

Minnesota vs. Iowa

when: 11 a.m., Saturday
where: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, Iowa
TV: Big Ten Network

In the highly anticipated first game coaching against his alma mater, Minnesota’s Tim Brewster fell to Illinois at home 44-17. The Gophers again struggled stopping the run as the Illini rumbled for 448 yards on the ground, while also amassing a mind-boggling 665 total yards of offense on the day. Senior wide receiver Ernie Wheelwright put together a career day with nine receptions for 123 yards, but his performance went relatively unnoticed as Minnesota continued its season-long defensive ineptitude.

On the road at Northwestern, Hawkeyes’ sophomore quarterback Jake Christensen threw for 299 yards and senior running back Damian Sims ran for a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns, leading Iowa to 28-17 comeback win over the Wildcats. The Hawkeyes rallied from a 14-point deficit for the second-straight week to win their third game in four tries, bringing them back into bowl contention with five wins on the season and two games left to play.

How they Stack Up

Offense

The Gophers have been unable to maintain a balanced offensive attack in the second half of the season, partly due to their injury-plagued backfield. Senior Amir Pinnix continues to be hobbled with a turf toe injury, while sophomore Jay Thomas is out for the season after a severe knee injury. Freshman Duane Bennett has stepped in to carry most of the running load, and freshman quarterback Adam Weber also continues to see his fair share of carries. Minnesota is currently ranked sixth in total offense in the Big Ten, but has failed at sustaining long scoring drives as of late.

Iowa currently sits at the bottom of the conference in scoring offense and total offense, which is easy to comprehend because of their ranking of 10th in rushing and passing offense. Scoring an average of seven points less than any other team in the Big Ten this season, Iowa has relied on efficiency and good field position to gain their wins. The Hawkeyes lead the Big Ten in turnover margin, sitting at plus-11 on the year, while Minnesota is 11th in the conference at negative-13.

defense

Giving up over 300 yards rushing to each opponent in the previous two weeks coming into the Illinois game, the Gophers’ defense hit a season low by allowing a staggering 448 yards on the ground Saturday. Iowa’s running back tandem of Albert Young and Damian Sims have the chance to continue the sluggish trend for Minnesota this Saturday by becoming the fourth straight opponent to tear up the turf against the young Gophers’ defense. Minnesota is ranked last in the Big Ten in total defense, distancing themselves by 140 yards from the 10th ranked team.

The Hawkeyes’ defense is largely what has kept them in games this season, allowing just 18.1 points per game, while offense has been putting up a slightly higher 18.2. The highlight of the defense has been their ability to hold teams in the red zone, tying for first in the Big Ten with Ohio State by granting access into the end zone to just 66 percent of opposing offenses that are within the 20-yard line. Senior linebacker Mike Humpal anchors the Hawkeyes’ defense by leading the Big Ten in tackles with 111 on the season, while fellow senior and cornerback Charles Godfrey is tied for the conference lead in interceptions with five.

Special Teams

Freshman return man Harold Howell brought some excitement back to the Gophers’ special teams unit last week with a couple of long returns. Brewster said this week that Howell only needs to add a little more strength to be able to shed off the arm tackles that keep him from going the distance.

Iowa leads the conference in average punt return yardage, while also having a solid punter of their own. Freshman Ryan Donahue blasted a 76-yard punt last Saturday, not to be outdone by his 82-yarder earlier in the season.

Players to watch

Eric Decker WR No. 7 Sophomore

Decker has been relatively quiet in the passing game the past few weeks after starting the season extremely strong. While opposing defenses have concentrated on limiting the production of Decker, the Gophers have begun to fit him in in different ways. Look for Decker to be more involved this week in the passing and rushing game.

Albert Young RB No. 21 Senior

The hard-nosed and talented offense, with Young at the helm, could help Iowa become the fourth team in a row to dismantle the Gophers’ defense on the ground. Young should get the majority of the carries, but look for others to play a major role as well in Saturday’s game in Kinnick Stadium.

Thoughts on the Game

“I know since I’ve been on the job that I’ve learned a great deal about the trophy games and how important they are to all Minnesotans and how important they are to the University of Minnesota to go play well against Iowa and win. We have the Floyd of Rosedale here in our presence today, and we’d like very much to keep that pig right here in the Twin Cities.” -Minnesota coach Tim Brewster

“Our strength right now is on defense and theirs is on offense. Their offensive football team is really moving the ball well. They’re scoring points and doing a good job. Conversely, our defensive guys are in the same boat. Then when you flip it over, they’re playing some young guys defensively right now just like we’re playing young guys offensively.” ­-Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz