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2-Minute Drill: Minnesota Golden Gophers

The first one to 200 rushing yards wins, it's that easy

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Crossroads game? Crossroads game. For both teams? Iowa is 3-2 (1-1 Big Ten) with losses in two of its last three and wins over three teams with three collective wins. Minnesota is 3-1 (0-1) with wins over Oregon State, Colorado State and Indiana State. Its loss was last week at Penn State in overtime, a game that saw the Golden Gophers yield a 10-point halftime lead.

Crossroads game. For both teams. Yes.

MINNESOTA RUSH DEFENSE VS. IOWA RUSH OFFENSE

This probably isn’t the best example to go with, but the Gophers did just play Penn State last week, so here we go. Penn State is a monumentally awful rushing team, ranking last in the Big Ten with just 108.2 yards a game. But the Nittany Lions do have running back Saquon Barkley and he’s pretty good.

Minnesota neutralized Barkley most of the game, holding him to 38 yards on 19 carries until his game-winning 25-yard burst in overtime. The Gophers piled up six tackles for loss and are fourth in the Big Ten with 35.0 this season.

Minnesota is getting stellar play from junior defensive tackle Steven Richardson, who was out when the Hawkeyes and Gophers met last season. The 6-0, 300-pounder has a team-high 5.0 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks.

Minnesota rotates six defensive tackles. That keeps things fresh in first-year coordinator Jay Sawvel’s 4-3 defense. Minnesota is tracking for a spectacular year vs. the run, allowing just 123.0 yards a game, which would be UM’s best rush defense since 2008.

Meanwhile, at 143.2 yards per game, Iowa is tracking toward its worst rushing output since 2012 (123.0). It’s not a straight line, especially when the defense had 38 points hung on it last week, but in its two losses, Iowa has rushed for 34 and 79 yards.

3 And Out: Iowa Football Tuesday Takeaways
 

 

At 5.47 yards per carry, Iowa is third in the Big Ten on first-down rushes. The killer number is third-and-short. With 1 to 3 yards to go on third down, the Hawkeyes average just 2.15 yards a carry and have converted the third down on nine of 28 attempts.

Those numbers don’t seem to fit. Running backs LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley remain two of Iowa’s most effective weapons. Time to saddle up here.

Advantage: Push

MINNESOTA PASS DEFENSE VS. IOWA PASS OFFENSE

Northwestern was the B1G’s worst pass defense going into last week’s game against the Hawkeyes. Six sacks got the Wildcats well in a hurry. The Gophers took a hit in the secondary after last season, with corners Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray moving on to the NFL.

Senior Jalen Myrick has locked in at one corner spot, but the Gophers rank last in the Big Ten with 255.3 passing yards allowed per game. On third-and-7 plus, the Gophers have allowed 13 completions and seven first downs. Safety Damarius Travis missed most of 2015, but was granted a medical hardship waiver and second on the team with 25 tackles. Freshman safety Antoine Winfield Jr. finished with eight tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a pass breakup at Penn State.

Four Gophers football players suspended during a Minneapolis police investigation into an alleged sexual assault won’t be charged in the case, the Hennepin County attorney’s office said Monday. Defensive backs KiAnte Hardin and Ray Buford were among the four. They’ve been suspended since Sept. 10. Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys said this week they would return to practice and their status would be considered “day-to-day.”

Defensive end Tai’yon Devers leads Minnesota with 3.0 sacks with three forced fumbles off those sacks, but he’s out this week with an ankle injury. Minnesota has 9.0 sacks this season. The Gophers allowed Penn State QB Trace McSorley to rush for 73 yards last week. Is Iowa QB C.J. Beathard healthy enough to take advantage?

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz ruled out health as what might be holding back Beathard, a second-team all-Big Ten performer last season. Ferentz covered the base with “it’s a little bit of everything.” You won’t want to read this, but he’s absolutely right.

• Ferentz's decisions: Big picture vs. momentary blip

Senior WR Riley McCarron was effective in his first week as Iowa’s No. 1 target (taking over for the injured Matt VandeBerg). McCarron caught a career-high eight passes for a career-high 78 yards. Sophomore WR Jerminic Smith was inches from having a great game, narrowly missing a ball down the Northwestern sideline that would’ve put the Hawkeyes inside NU’s 20 on their final drive. Northwestern was effective covering senior TE George Kittle, holding him to one reception in four targets. Northwestern played a ton of press, man-to-man coverage against the Hawkeyes. Iowa is going to see a lot of that, at least until it can prove it can beat it.

A lot has been said and written about the six sacks Iowa allowed. Yes, four of those were pinned to left tackle Cole Croston. Again, it’s a little bit of everything, but six sacks kills an offense every day of the week.

Advantage: Minnesota

MINNESOTA RUSH OFFENSE VS. IOWA RUSH DEFENSE

It’s almost the halfway point of the season. There still is some leeway for the numbers teams put up. They’re neither as good or as bad as they make you look. In other words, neither Iowa nor Minnesota has played a CFP contender. Still, you look at the Gophers’ rush attack and you have to be impressed.

The Big Ten West is won with running backs. Minnesota has two good ones in sophomores Rodney Smith (5-11, 205) and Shannon Brooks (6-0, 210). Smith is fourth in the Big Ten with 402 yards (82 carries, 4.90 per carry) and has five TDs. Brooks missed two games with a foot injury, but has 185 yards and two TDs on 27 carries.

Minnesota’s O-line is kind of a patchwork with a pair of junior college starters, a true sophomore center and giant right tackle Jonah Pirsig (6-9, 325). In 2015, the Gophers were second-to-last in the Big Ten in scoring, third-to-last in yards and fourth-to-last in rushing. Claeys fired offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Matt Limegrover and picked Jay Johnson and Bart Miller as the respective replacements. Miller once coached O-line for Bret Bielema at Wisconsin. Claeys wanted “road graders” on the OL and he’s got them. (Crazy stat: Minnesota hasn’t had an O-lineman drafted since 2006.)

Minnesota runs pistol and read option, which offenses the last three weeks have used effectively against the Hawkeyes. Quarterback Mitch Leidner is not a game-changer with his feet, but he’s effective, with a 4.27 average on 33 carries.

You’ve seen Iowa’s rush defense. You know it’s not held up. Right now, the Hawkeyes are 11th in the league, allowing 182.8 rushing yards a game. That’s tracking to be Iowa’s worst rush defense since 2000 (194.3). That’s 20 yards worse than the 2012 Hawkeyes, who allowed 162.1 and finished 4-8. This is the danger zone.

A lot of this week has been trying to figure out how a defense that returned seven starters and allowed just 121.4 yards on the ground last year is struggling. It’s as simple as shedding blocks, covering gaps and tackling. Ferentz doesn’t think it’s a talent issue. Maybe he’s right. The fact of the matter is this rush defense is tracking with Ferentz teams that had losing records.

Advantage: Minnesota

MINNESOTA PASS OFFENSE VS. IOWA PASS DEFENSE

Minnesota has put together an effective group of receivers that is a tall group, with junior tight end Nate Wozniak, at 6-10, leading the way. Senior Drew Wolitarsky (6-4, 220) leads the group with 24 catches for 321 yards. Junior Brian Smith (6-4, 210) has 13 catches for 185 yards. And freshman Tyler Johnson (6-2, 185) has 10 for 78 yards.

This might be the best group of receivers Leidner has had to throw to in his three-plus seasons as UM’s starter. And hey, how about Leidner himself? The 6-4, 230-pounder has a 19-14 record as Minnesota’s starting QB. No disrespect to Minnesota, but that’s pretty good for Minnesota. He’s rushed for 1,270 career yards with 26 TDs. He’s passed for 5,958 yards and 33 TDs (tied for sixth in school history). Right now, Leidner is the school’s career leader in completion percentage (57.3).

This is a rivalry game and you’ll hear the TCF Bank Stadium crowd chant “We hate Iowa” over and over. Count Leidner among the Iowa haters. He laid that on the table this summer at Big Ten media days.

“I’ll always have a chip on my shoulder against Iowa because of the way they recruited me,” Leidner said. “I felt like they kind of strung me along a little bit and ended up telling me they weren’t going to offer me until the end of my senior season if I played well. I wanted to go there and expressed a lot of interest in them because Minnesota already had a quarterback.”

 

 

The chip against Iowa is apparent in Leidner’s performances against the Hawkeyes. He is 1-1, but has rushed 22 times for 109 yards and has completed 29 of 40 passes (72.5 percent) for five TDs and no interceptions. That’s a QB rating of 197.12.

Iowa’s pass defense has been as good as advertised. Led by senior cornerback Desmond King, the Hawkeyes are No. 3 in the Big Ten, allowing just 181.8 yards a game. Teams still have been efficient against Iowa, completing 54.7 percent of passes (sixth in the B1G) with a pass efficiency of 124.4 (ninth).

The Hawkeyes are getting to QBs, sitting tied for third in the league with 14.0 sacks. Interceptions have been few and far between with just two, but the Hawkeyes are still a respectable plus-5 in turnover margin, which is third in the Big Ten.

Advantage: Iowa

SPECIAL TEAMS

Minnesota kicker Emmit Carpenter hit four field goals at Penn State and has now made the first nine attempts of his career. The sophomore nailed a pair of late kicks at Penn State to give UM a chance to win it in regulation. He also made his OT attempt. Eight of his kicks have been from 35 yards or more and five have been from 42 and out.

Minnesota coaches kind of gambled with Carpenter. He hadn’t attempted a field goal until this season. The Gophers had Ryan Santoso in their pocket as a kicker. He made 17 of 21 kicks last season. But Minnesota lost Peter Mortell, one of the best punters in UM history, and decided to shift Santoso to punter. That’s worked, too, with Santoso averaging 41.9 yards on 17 punts. He has eight punts inside the opponent’s 20 and has had three punts of 50-plus yards.

King and McCarron have given Iowa a dangerous duo on kick and punt returns. They piled up 254 yards in punt and kick returns, Iowa’s best day since 2013 against Western Michigan (257 yards). Of course, returners don’t do it by themselves. Iowa’s core special teams have been solid.

More: Hawkeyes' return game becoming a weapon

The one blip last week was a bad punt from Ron Coluzzi and the Hawkeyes defending that punt with 10 men on the field. It ended up as a 47-yard return and eventually seven points for the Gophers.

Advantage: Iowa

INTANGIBLES

 

1. Empty trophy case — This is Floyd of Rosedale week. The bronze pig (did you know it weighs 98.3 pounds?) is up for grabs this week. After going 0-for in trophy games in 2014, the Hawkeyes have won five straight, claiming the Cy-Hawk earlier this year. Minnesota watched its last trophy leave the case when it lost in OT at Penn State. The schools play for the Governor’s Victory Bell. This might be Minnesota’s best shot at a rivalry trophy this season (it’s lost the Paul Bunyan Axe to Wisconsin 11 straight seasons). Michigan and Minnesota don’t play this year, so no shot at the Little Brown Jug.

2. Composure counts — Iowa had two non-calls go against it last week that had Kinnick Stadium in an uproar. The first one was a pass interference no-call along the Iowa sideline. Some members of the Iowa staff went nuts and for the second consecutive week, Iowa got a sideline warning (at Rutgers, Iowa did have a 15-yard sideline interference flag thrown after an official ran into an assistant). The biggie was in the second half. The missed facemask on Beathard bloomed into back-to-back 15-yarders on the Hawkeyes. Ferentz was in the defensive huddle after that trying to focus his group. Can’t have this. Can’t let things you can’t control bend you like that.

3. B1G West elimination game — Whichever team loses will have two losses in the Big Ten. Iowa still has Wisconsin, at Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska. Minnesota has at Nebraska, Northwestern and at Wisconsin. Hey, Minnesota clears this hurdle and it’s still in it. Iowa has a tougher road, but defending its B1G West title will still be based in reality. Loser is out. That’s also reality.

MINNESOTA WILL WIN IF ... it rushes for 200 yards. That’s game control. Iowa’s offense hasn’t shown it can sustain drives (Iowa is No. 91 in the nation in time of possession with 28:01 a game) and so 200 rushing yards would leave the Hawkeyes with no room to work.

IOWA WILL WIN IF ... it rushes for 200 yards. There’s a theme here. At this point, the Hawkeyes have to do whatever they can to hide a defense that just hasn’t measured up to standard. The best way to do that is game control.

PREDICTION: Minnesota 24, Iowa 21

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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