The Iowa game with Minnesota this year takes on a whole different scenario than last year. Iowa needed to win at Minnesota to grab a share of the Big Ten title while facing a reeling Minnesota team. This year, Minnesota is rolling while Iowa tries to gather itself following a tough loss at Purdue.
Typically, this game is played as the finale for both teams, but because Minnesota did not have an off-week, this is the finale for the Gophers but the Hawks still have one conference game remaining.
Minnesota has what Iowa had last year: A dominant rushing attack. In fact, Minnesota is the leading rushing team in the conference and third nationally. Their rushing statistics are staggering: 303.9 yards per game, 5.8 yards per carry and 40 touchdowns. Forty of Minnesota's 58 touchdowns have come via the ground. They average 118 yards per game more rushing than the second place team Michigan -- that margin is more than Michigan State and Illinois average for a game. Minnesota has had rushing games of 434 in an unbelievable loss to Michigan and 468 against hapless Indiana. Minnesota has four tailbacks that see action, the fourth tailback is last year's starter, Terry Jackson.
The majority of the carries go to talented sophomore Marion Barber III and freshman Laurence Maroney. Barber and Maroney rank third and fifth in rushing averaging 103 and 83 yards per game respectively. Maroney sports a 7.5 yards per carry average and Barber six yards per carry. Both these guys are north-south type guys with great bursts of speed. You won't see any dancing with these guys, they get up field in a hurry.
A friend of mine told me he thought Barber reminded him of Tavian Banks, and he is a lot like Banks with his running style only much tougher and durable than Banks was. Minnesota has run at will on all of their 11 opponents, and having four capable backs allows Minnesota to have fresh legs to keep pounding on a defense.
This will be the best rush defense Minnesota has faced all year, the Gophers will not face Ohio State or Purdue, which are the only teams as good as or better than Iowa in stopping the run. Whomever controls the run game will determine the victor this Saturday.
It appears that Iowa might catch a break this week as Minnesota quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq is questionable after injuring his shoulder just before halftime last week against Wisconsin. Khaliq has been very up-and-down during his career but is having his best year his senior year. His passing efficiency rating of 164 is tops in the Big 10, his 64.5% completion percentage is tops in the league, and he has an excellent 17 touchdowns to four interceptions. Khaliq's effectiveness you can attribute to Minnesota's rushing game, which opens up the passing attack. Khaliq can beat you with his feet if he has to but prefers to stay in the pocket. If Khaliq can't go which is a definite possibility, senior backup Benji Kamrath takes the quarterbacking reigns. With Kamrath in the game the Gophers become even more dependent on the run than they would be already. Kamrath has completed just 47% of his passes, 16 for 34 with two interceptions. Kamrath is far less mobile than Khaliq, but allowing sacks is something Minnesota has been very good at as they have allowed a league low 11sacks in 11 games.
Khaliq or Kamrath will be throwing to 6-foot-6 Aaron Hosack who leads the Gophers in receptions with 36 and touchdowns with eight. Hosack has an excellent 16.2 yards per reception average. Jared Ellerson is second in catches with 34 to Hosack, but leads the Gophers in receiving yards with 750 and yards per catch at 22.1, which is tops in the Big Ten. Tight End Ben Utecht was the leading receiver last year for Minnesota but is third this year with 18 catches for 289 yards for a stellar 16.1 yards per catch average.
Despite having attempted the least amount of passes, Minnesota is fifth in total passing yards, second in passing touchdowns and first in yards per reception. Minnesota has made the most of their 20 passing attempts per game, completing a high percentage for a high amount of yards. This is a high-octane offense that will push Iowa to its defensive limit.
Scoring points has not been a problem for Minnesota, but stopping other teams from scoring has been. Minnesota allowed 38 points in the fourth quarter in a home loss to Michigan. Michigan State hung 44 on Minnesota at the dome and Wisconsin scored 34 points in a loss at the dome. The Minnesota defense is not one that completely shuts down an offense, it does give up yards. Penn State rushed for 226 yards with a 5.3 per carry average against Minnesota. Penn State ranks third worst in rushing the football, and gained fifty some yards against the Hawks. Unlike it's offense, the Gopher defense does not rank real high in any team or individual category. Senior Linebacker Ben West is the leading tackler for Minnesota averaging 7.6 tackles per game, good for 15th in the league. West also has three sacks on the season. Terrance Campbell and Eli Ward rank two and three on the tackle list for Minnesota. The top linemen for Minnesota are Darrell Reid with 10 tackles-for-loss and 4.5 sacks, and Mark Losli with 8.5 tackles-for-loss and four sacks.
The leading interceptor is Justin Isom with three picks, and Minnesota as a team has nine interceptions. Opponents move the chains frequently against Minnesota as only Illinois and Indiana have allowed more first downs than Minnesota. Iowa will want to possess the ball and keep the chains moving to keep the high powered Gopher offense off the field. Minnesota has not missed a beat in the kicking game as freshman Euro Rhys Lloyd has converted 11-13 field goals, and is perfect from over 40 yards at 3-3. His long is 54 yards. A majority of his kicks has come inside the dome, this week he will be on grass, outside during an Iowa November afternoon. It's a whole different ballgame.
Iowa matches up much better with Minnesota than they did last week with Purdue. Iowa can play its base 4-3 defense to stop the run, and play straight up with the receivers. This will test Iowa's rush defense as nobody rushes the ball better than Minnesota. Iowa will be aided with the return of Jared Clauss on the defensive line. Iowa missed his space eating ability last week, and although Clauss won't be 100%, his presence will be felt. Grant Steen will also be returning to bolster the defense. Iowa made Minnesota one-dimensional last year and Iowa picked off four Khaliq passes, two by Jovon Johnson. Minnesota has good receivers but Iowa's corners can certainly run with them.
Stopping the run will be priority one, two, and three and I think Iowa will do that. Maybe they won't shut down the running game, but Minnesota will not get its season average in this game. If Iowa allows fewer than 150 rushing yards, its chances of winning are good. If Iowa allows fewer than 120 yards, it wins going away. Barring turnovers or penalties, Iowa should move the ball against Minnesota.
Iowa will need to score to win this game, as a shutout is unlikely, but Iowa wants this game played in the 20s. If this becomes a scoring duel, Iowa will lose. Iowa will not lose this game. PREDICTION: Iowa 27, Minnesota 23.