IOWA CITY, Iowa - Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald referenced fan and media criticisms of Iowa he'd heard after the Hawkeyes stomped his team 48-7 Saturday. He couldn't understand the blowback after watching them on film and then in person.
"I know that everybody has been all over Iowa here but when I watched them on tape I didn't see issues," Fitzgerald said.
Iowa critiques reached beyond Evanston. They found their way to Minneapolis.
"If you follow Iowa in the past, they are always a football team that gets better. Everybody says things and then all of a sudden they just keep going. That's the nature of who they are and the job coach does," Minnesota Coach Jerry Kill said this week.
The Hawkeyes (6-2 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) travel to the Twin Cities Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN2). Minnesota will be hosting the Battle for Floyd for the fourth time in the last five seasons thanks to an unbalanced schedule created by Big Ten expansion and realignment.
Iowa throttled a solid Golden Gophers team, 23-7, at TCF Bank Stadium in last year's conference opener for both teams. Two seasons ago, the Hawkeyes rolled Minnesota, 31-13, in Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa's upward trajectory this fall has resembled that of its past successful teams. The Hawkeyes fell at home to lowly Iowa State, captured modest wins against UNI and Ball State and were embarrassed at Maryland three weeks ago before blowing out Northwestern.
"Everybody starts to question them, and then they roll it off and all of a sudden they got nine, 10 wins," Kill said. "And that's a credit to their coaching staff. They just stay with what they do. They don't panic. They don't listen to anybody outside. They just keep doing what they do. And their kids believe in what they're doing. You can watch that on film."
Iowa is in position to win its first league title since 2004. To do so, a win against their rivals to the north will be imperative.
The Golden Gophers (6-2, 3-1) also find themselves in a spot to capture the West Division. Like Iowa, they face fellow contenders, Wisconsin and Nebraska, later this month. It's the 108th meeting between the border schools.
"This game is a rivalry game. It means a ton to our state. It means a ton to our university and where we're at right now, it's a big game. You literally concentrate on that and then you go to the next one," Kill said.
Minnesota has taken on the personality of Kill, who is in his fourth season at the school. Much like the Hawkeyes under Kirk Ferentz, the Gophers are at their best when they dominate up front on both sides of the ball and win the physical battle.
"They look like they have in the last couple of years," Ferentz said. "The biggest difference is they're more veteran, a lot more experienced, older, physical guys, and they run the ball with great success. And their running back has done a tremendous job. Their quarterback is a really good runner and can hurt you with his arm, as well. It's a little bit of a different challenge."
Senior David Cobb ranks eighth nationally with 1,131 yards rushing. The running back from Texas paces a Minnesota ground attack rated 30th in the country and sixth in the Big Ten at 216.0 yards per game. Conversely, it's 140.5 passing yards a contest put it at 120 among 125 FBS teams.
Conventional wisdom would call for Iowa to force Gophers Quarterback Mitch Leidner to beat it with his arm. The Hawkeyes shun that approach.
"They're a big threat (to pass) because they run the ball so well that they have good play-action," Hawkeye Defensive Tackle Carl Davis said. "I've seen that plenty of times watching film. The quarterback will fake the run, everybody sinks in there to stop the run and the next thing you know the quarterback is rolling out and he can either run for the first down or throw it for the first down. That's something that we can't let happen."
Tight end Maxx Williams represents Minnesota's biggest aerial threat and offers up a potential mismatch against the Hawkeye linebackers. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound sophomore is the son of former Gopher standout Brian Williams, a first-round NFL Draft Pick by the New York Giants who played 11 years in the league.
"We knew about Maxx and never got the chance to recruit him. He committed really early. And he's done an outstanding job," Ferentz said.
Minnesota ranks 36th nationally in scoring defense (22.3 PPG). It's aided by punter Peter Mortell, who rates eighth in the country with a 45.1 average.
Time, TV, Announcers: 11:01 a.m. CT on ESPN2 with Beth Mowins, Joey Galloway and Paul Carcaterra.
The Series: Minnesota leads 61-44-2.
Betting Line: The Gophers opened as a 1.0-point favorite at the Las Vegas Mirage on Sunday. The Hawkeyes moved to a 2.0-pick as of Thursday. The total was set at 43.5.
-Minnesota is 8-2 Against The Spread in its last 10 conference games.
-Iowa is 8-1 ATS in its last 9 road games.
Match-up to Watch: Williams could cause Iowa fits if it loses track of him while loading up to stop Cobb. He might create problems even if the Hawkeyes know where he is.
Williams is a tight end that runs like a wide receiver. He'll put pressure on an Iowa linebacker group that has faulted at times this year.
Though unconventional, Iowa should keep a safety over top of Williams if it chooses to track him with a linebacker. Covering him one-on-one appears to me a mismatch with a guy who averages 16.5 yards per catch at 6-4, 250.
Take Note: Iowa leads the Big Ten in kickoff returns (26.5) and kickoff coverage (16.3). The Hawkeyes' kickoff return ranks fifth and their kickoff coverage ranks seventh nationally.
Take Note, Take Two: The Gophers are 7-3 in their last 10 Big Ten games (Oct. 19, 2013 – Oct. 18, 2014). The 7-3 mark is the best record for Minnesota in a 10-game conference stretch since it also went 7-3 from Nov. 11, 1967 – Nov. 23, 1968.
Non-Sports Related: Minnesota has 90,000 miles of shoreline, more than California, Florida and Hawaii combined.
Did You Know?: The world’s largest collections of Sherlock Holmes literature, artifacts, and memorabilia are housed in the U of M’s Andersen Library.
Did You Also Know?: Peter Graves of Mission Impossible fame graduated from Minnesota.
Minnesota Wins If… it can keep the defense honest with the pass.
Iowa Wins If… it can stop the run.
Overview: Minnesota must win this week if it wants the chance to play for a Big Ten title. It finishes the season against Ohio State and with road games at Wisconsin and Nebraska.
While that can put undo pressure on a team, the Gophers should be motivated and focused after being whooped by Iowa the last two seasons. That they're coming off a bye week only enhances their chances to earn a much-needed victory.
Iowa's confidence must be sky high after its demolition of the Wildcats. It just can't get too full of itself as it looked at Maryland coming off a stomping of Indiana.
The Hawkeyes played their most complete game against Northwestern, giving hope that they corrected issues with running the ball and stopping the rush, two areas in which they previously struggled to find consistency. Minnesota has shown this year that it's capable of challenging both of those phases.
My heart is telling me that Iowa fixed its problems during the last bye week and Saturday kicked off a run to the Big Ten title game. My mind is whispering to me that I need more convincing and not to go overboard with the win against Northwestern.
Prediction: Minnesota 17, IOWA 16