WHO: Minnesota Golden Gophers (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten)
WHEN: Saturday, October 6
WHERE: TCF Bank Stadium (Minneapolis, MN)
KICKOFF: 2:30 PM Central
ONLINE: BTN2Go | Fox Sports Go
RADIO: Hawkeye Sports Network (check local listings); TuneIn
ODDS: Iowa -7.0
WEATHER: Cloudy, high around 50, 10 mph wind
There are a lot of parallels between Iowa and Minnesota thus far in the 2018 season. Both teams went 3-0 in non-conference play. Both teams lost their Big Ten opener to drop to 3-1 overall and 0-1 in the Big Ten. Both teams are coming off byes last week. And, frankly, both teams have used a similar blueprint to reach this point: relying on a generally stingy defense to overcome an oft-sputtering offense.
Iowa-Minnesota is the most-played rivalry in Iowa's history -- 111 times entering this year. No other series comes close -- Iowa-Wisconsin is the second-most played series, at 92 encounters. Minnesota still owns a substantial advantage in the overall series (62-47-2), but Iowa has had the edge in the series over the last 40 years under Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz, going 25-14 over that span. Ferentz has been particularly good against the Gophers, going 13-6 during his tenure. Five of his six losses to Minnesota have been on the road, though, and he's just 2-3 in Minneapolis since the Gophers vacated Kinnick North, aka the Metrodome, for TCF Bank Stadium. Lately the games have been often been low-scoring and ugly affairs -- three of the last five games failed to produce more than 30 combined points. (The exceptions to that were a 51-14 obliteration of Iowa by the Gophers in the miserable 2014 season and an out-of-nowhere shootout that Iowa won 40-35 in 2015.) Last year Iowa won 17-10 in Kinnick behind touchdowns from Akrum Wadley and Noah Fant; two years ago Iowa won 14-7 in TCF Bank thanks to a late Wadley touchdown and a goalline stand as time expired. Iowa has won three in a row against Minnesota entering this game, but all of them by a single score.
MINNESOTA SEASON RECAP
Minnesota's season was going along swimmingly -- until Coxswain Fleck steered the Gophers into the Potomac and they ran into a bale of vicious turtles. Maryland rocked Minnesota's world from the jump, racing out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter and extending that to 21-3 with five minutes to go in the first half. A late Gopher touchdown made it 21-10 at the break, but a pick-six shortly after halftime gave Maryland a 28-10 lead and at that point it was just a matter of how lopsided the final score would be (42-13, to be precise). Before that, though, Minnesota's season had been going well -- they won their first three non-conference games, thumping New Mexico State and Miami (OH) by a combined score of 74-13 and edging a good Fresno State team, 21-14. Of course, New Mexico State and Miami (OH) are a combined 2-6 in their games against non-Minnesota opponents, so they weren't the fiercest opposition.
The Gopher offense is... not good. They're averaging 27.0 ppg, 85th in the nation. (Disclaimer: that is ahead of Iowa, who sits at 25.3 ppg, 95th nationally, five weeks into the season.) They're 110th in the nation in total offense, averaging about 347 yards per game. They're even worse on a per play basis, averaging 4.73 yards per play, 120th in the nation. (That makes them only the third-worst offense in the Big Ten on a per play basis; Northwestern and (you guessed it) Rutgers are even more offensively challenged.) Their grim offensive production is pretty balanced, though -- they're averaging about 160 rushing yards per game (84th in the nation) and about 187 passing yards per game (104th in the nation). On a per carry basis, Gopher rushers are picking up 3.63 yards a pop, 106th nationally. On a per attempt basis, Gopher passers are averaging 6.4 yards per attempt, 107th nationally. This is an offense without much pop in any dimension.
They're also not very good at third-down conversions -- through four games, they've converted 35.6% of their chances, 103rd nationally. And they struggle in the red zone, too -- they've converted 76.5% of their trips in the red zone into points (111th nationally), but just 10 of those 17 total trips (58.8%, 89th nationally) have been for touchdowns. I really did try to find some stats that made their offense look good, or at least moderately competent, but... there just isn't much they can hang their hat on.
Their best offensive player is clearly receiver Tyler Johnson, who leads the team in receptions (22), receiving yards (295), and touchdowns (5). In fact, he has nearly half of Minnesota's total offensive touchdowns so far this season (5/11). Johnson, a 6'2", 200 lb receiver out of Minneapolis, will be the toughest match-up for the Iowa defense, and keeping him in check should be priorities one, two, and three in this game. He does have a talented running mate in Rashod Bateman, who's second on the team in receptions (20), receiving yards (192), and touchdowns (1).
With Rodney Smith (their other candidate for "best offensive player") knocked out for the season with an injury, the Gopher rushing attack is resting on the backs of a pair of freshmen, Bryce Williams and Mohamed Ibrahim. Williams is leading the team with 283 yards, but he's doing most of that through volume -- he's averaging just 3.8 yards per carry. Ibrahim is second on the team with 196 yards and averaging a more impressive 5.6 yards per clip. He missed games against Fresno State and Miami (OH), but carried a big load against Maryland (26 carries for 95 yards).
In fact, Minnesota has an all-freshman backfield, as in addition to Williams and Ibrahim at running back, the Gophers also have true frosh Zach Annexstad at quarterback. Annexstad has looked like, well, a pretty typical true freshman quarterback to this point: 58/110 (52.7% completion), 706 yards, 6.4 ypa, 5/2 TD/INT. He's avoided turnovers, but he hasn't been terribly accurate or explosive thus far. Iowa's defense ought to be a significant step-up for him in terms of difficulty as well.
While Minnesota's offensive numbers are pretty dismal, their defensive numbers have been much more solid. They're conceding 17.3 ppg, 19th best in the nation. They're allowing 300.3 ypg, 14th best nationally. They've been a little less solid on a per play basis -- 4.98 ypp, 41st nationally -- but still good. They've been more vulnerable on the ground -- 132.8 ypg (49th), 4.7 ypc (99th) -- although a lot of that damage was incurred in their most recent game, against Maryland. The Terps gained 315 yards on 37 carries, a sizzling 8.5 ypc average. Prior to that, Minnesota had allowed 216 yards on 75 carries, a very stingy 2.9 ypc average. Minnesota's pass defense has been strong so far, allowing just 167.5 ypg (18th nationally); opponents are completing just 57.4% of their passes (50th) for a QB rating of 105.02 (17th).
One issue with those numbers: Minnesota lost their best defender, safety Antoine Winfield, Jr., for the season to a foot injury sustained in the Maryland game. He went out early in the game and the Terps ended up gashing the Gophers for 432 yards on a stunning 8.5 yards per play. The Gophers have now had two weeks to adjust to life without Winfield on defense, but his absence is still going to leave a void and make their defense much less imposing. (His loss is also going to be felt deeply in the punt return game, where he was averaging 36.7 yards per return on three returns and already had one touchdown.)
As far as names to know on the Gopher defense... linebacker Blake Cashman is leading the team in tackles (27) and tackles for loss (6.5). Only one of those tackles for loss has been a sack, so he's been adept at hanging around the line of scrimmage to stuff running backs for losses. Carter Coughlin, a junior linebacker, is leading the team in sacks with four. Freshman defensive back Terell Smith has been making some plays as well, leading the team with four passes defended and hauling in an interception as well.
Minnesota's defense has also been strong on third down and in the red zone this season. Teams have converted just 30.9% of their third downs against the Gophers this year, although some of that is fueled by particularly inept performances on third down by New Mexico State (2/17) and Miami (OH) (4/15). They've done an impressive job of keeping teams out of the red zone as well -- opponents have made just four trips inside the Gopher 20-yard line this year, turning three of those trips into scores. Of course, Maryland racked up 42 points on them without ever setting foot in the red zone, which suggests some vulnerability to big plays (and indeed, Maryland had touchdowns of 54, 64, and 81 yards against Minnesota).
MATCH-UP TO WATCH
Tyler Johnson versus the Iowa secondary is a key match-up for this game because I think a big game for Johnson might be Minnesota's best way of staying in this game on offense; if Iowa can keep him contained, it will likely be difficult for Minnesota to move the ball and score points. But I'm most curious about the match-up of Iowa's running game and Minnesota's defensive front seven. This feels like a game where Iowa is going to hammer away with the running game and try to impose its will on the ground. If that doesn't work, we're likely in store for a very ugly, low-scoring clash (so, like the last few Iowa-Minnesota games). Minnesota's defense was very stout against the run -- until the Maryland game, when the Terps ran all over them. Iowa's running game has been picking up steam as the season has progressed and was actually productive against Wisconsin (148 yards, 4.8 ypc). If Iowa can establish a decent running game here, I think the game will open up for them.
WHAT WE WANT TO SEE
Start fast and stay on the gas. Iowa's offense hasn't gotten off to many quick starts this season -- they've only scored 7 points in the first quarter all season, and those came via a touchdown against UNI -- so getting out of the blocks strongly would be a nice change of pace. It would also help take the Gopher crowd out of the game, which would be a plus. Iowa has struggled against Minnesota on the road in recent years largely because they've enabled the Gophers to keep it close -- do that and all it takes is a freak play here or there to spring an upset (as we know too well). If Iowa can get off to a good start and open up a lead on them, though, they can reduce the risk of those random bounces hurting them. It's also seemed like Iowa's offense has been starting to click more over the last few weeks -- that resulted in a blowout against UNI and a season-high 38 points, but they couldn't turn their offensive production (404 yards, 7.5 ypp) into enough actual points (just 17) against Wisconsin. If they can maintain that production but turn it into more actual points, this should be a road win.
There are certainly reasons to be leery about this game: Minnesota has won three of five against Iowa at TCF Bank Stadium and Iowa has routinely played sub-par in games up in the Twin Cities in that span. Iowa also has a poor record under Ferentz in games after regular season bye weeks (6-9) and an especially bad record in road games after regular season bye weeks (2-8). And yet... I have a good feeling about this game. I think Iowa's offense is productive at the start of the game and gets off to a quick start. Minnesota's youth-fueled offense will struggle against Iowa's defense and I think the defense will be able to turn those struggles into turnovers (and points). Iowa 27, Minnesota 13