Here's The Deal … Is Iowa really in the Big Ten title chase?
This isn't a vintage Kirk Ferentz team, with plenty of holes across the board and not nearly enough production on the lines and on defense, but after hitting the two-foot putts against Northwestern and Indiana, and with the free space day with Minnesota this week, the Legends is there for the taking with Michigan and Michigan State both coming to Iowa City before closing out at Purdue and Nebraska. The lone loss was to Penn State in the Leaders; Iowa controls its own Big Ten title destiny. But first, it has to start playing more consistently.
Minnesota has to start playing, period.
Jerry Kill is a terrific head coach, and the program showed that it knows things are on the right track by giving Kill a vote of confidence seven-year contract extension despite the miserable 1-6 start.
The talent just isn't there.
The Gophers don't have the athletes on defense, and they don't have the playmakers on offense, to keep pace with the North Dakota State's of the world, much less the Nebraskas, Michigan States, and Wisconsins. It's true rebuilding process, but coming up with a second straight stunning performance against the Hawkeyes would do wonders for a team that's getting bombed on left and right.
Last year the Gophers tried, Iowa didn't, and a 2-9 team beat the 7-4 on 27-24. Two years ago, Iowa won one of the ugliest games in the last decade in a 12-0 victory, and that was more entertaining than the 55-0 drubbing in 2008.
Kill wants to establish this game as a true rivalry battle again, while Iowa wants to get the Floyd of Rosedale trophy – it's a pig – and get out. Strange things have happened in this longtime battle, but anything other than a Hawkeye blowout will be one of the shockers of the Big Ten weekend.
Why Iowa Might Win: You can't win if you don't score. Points, even in garbage time, have been next to impossible to come by for a Gopher attack with no passing game, a mediocre ground attack, and no weapons whatsoever for the struggling Hawkeye defense to worry about. Iowa was held to just three points by Penn State, but it's scored 40 or more points in three of the last four games and five of the last six. Take out the clunker against the Nittany Lions and the Hawkeyes are averaging close to 40 points per game. Minnesota has yet to break the 30-point mark and has been outscored 144 to 31 in Big Ten play.
The Gopher defense hasn't exactly stepped up to pick up the slack, with poor tackling, no pass rush whatsoever, and not enough takeaways. Iowa doesn't have to do anything fancy and it doesn't have to take any chances. As long as it doesn't turn the ball over a ton and doesn't make a slew of big mistakes, there won't be a problem. Hitting 30 points shouldn't b a problem for the red hot Hawkeye offensive machine.
Why Minnesota Might Win: How did Penn State stop the Iowa offense cold? The defense didn't do much on third downs, allowing the Hawkeyes to convert 7-of-16 chances. It controlled the ball by slowing things down and getting a big day from the ground attack, holding on to the ball for almost 36 minutes. Minnesota has been awful in time of possession, having the ball for just over 28 minutes per game, but Iowa is worse. The Gophers have to find a way to get more from the running backs, and QB MarQueis Gray needs to keep things moving as the team's most dangerous rushing threat. The running game has worked at times, and now it has to be dominant against a surprisingly soft Iowa defensive front seven.
Iowa isn't as good as its 5-2 record and it has plenty of holes in the secondary and on the offensive line. The offense is opportunistic and it feeds off takeaways and not losing the turnover margin. If Minnesota can hold on to the ball – not a given – and if Gray can get time to work, the points should finally start to come. The Hawkeye defense will give up yards, especially through the air.
What To Watch Out For: Iowa senior Marvin McNutt has grown into a special receiver. The 6-4, 215-pound former quarterback is a true No. 1 to work around with good deep speed, smart route-running skills, and the ability to come through in the clutch when needed. Now he's on a roll with four 100 yards games in the first seven and coming off a dominant six-catch, 184-yard, three score day against Indiana. Last year he was held to three catches for 46 yards and a score in the loss to the Gophers, and he made just one grab for 28 yards two years ago. The Gopher secondary doesn't have the talent to keep him under wraps.
Minnesota's 5-11, 195-pound senior Kim Royston has had an interesting career. The former Wisconsin Badger transferred to Minnesota, finished third on the team in 2009 with 86 tackles, and was all set to become one of the Big Ten's top players, and then he broke his leg. Now that he's back and healthy, he's playing like a steady all-star making ten tackles or more in five of the team's seven games, coming up with ten against Nebraska. He hasn't come up with a pick yet and needs to do more against the pass, but he's managing to bail out the run defense time and again.
What Will Happen: Minnesota hasn't shown anything yet to suggest it can keep up any sort of pace against a team capable of putting 40 points or more on the board. The Gophers almost always seem to play out of its head when it plays its rival, but like last week when Nebraska invaded TCF Bank Stadium, Iowa fans will make it seem like a Hawkeye home game.
CFN Prediction: Iowa 44 … Minnesota 17