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IOWA CITY — Gut-check time, crossroads game; now or never.
Call it what you want, but when the Iowa football team walks out of its locker room to face Minnesota inside TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, the Hawkeyes will do so facing a few challenges.
Fix the pass protection. Fix the run game. Fix the mental errors. Fix the pass rush. Fix the run defense. No, it’s not like Iowa (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) has been an utter failure at those things, but they’re all points Coach Kirk Ferentz and his players have addressed. They’re tenets of Ferentz’s program, and when they fail — especially points 2 and 4 in that list — the Hawkeyes fail.
The defensive issues will not be made any easier traveling to Minneapolis. The Gophers (3-1, 0-1) might be searching for a little existential relief themselves, but at least do so with an offensive front that looks like a quintet of dump trucks.
“They’re big on offense, probably bigger than in the past,” Ferentz said. “They’ve got some new linemen that are really big guys. So the collective effort is big, tight end is big; quarterback is big.”
We’re talking 6-foot-5-322-pounds-on average-on-the-offensive-line big. Six-foot-4-230-pounds-under-center big. Six-foot-10-275-pounds-at-tight-end big.
Now, it’s not like the Hawkeyes have never faced a big offensive line or a quarterback who looks like a linebacker (they’ve faced Mitch Leidner twice, of course). But when two major issues for your defense are stopping the run and getting pressure on the quarterback, size matters.
Ferentz and Co. know that, and know what’s been happening on their defensive front cannot keep happening if Iowa wants to bring the Floyd of Rosedale back to the Hansen Performance Center.
Minnesota sits sixth in the Big Ten in total offense with 439.8 yards per game and fourth in rushing offense with 228.3 yards per game from running backs Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks and Kobe McCrary, as well as Leidner. Brooks, who ran for 86 yards and a touchdown last year against Iowa, has been surpassed by Smith as the lead rusher this season, and Smith has 402 yards and five touchdowns so far. In pass protection, the Gophers’ offensive line has given up just three sacks so far this season and no quarterback hurries.
Iowa has given up 210 yards per game on the ground in its last three games, and registered eight total sacks and four total quarterback hurries in that span. Not winning the line of scrimmage was a big recipe for 1-2 over three weeks.
Minnesota plays like Iowa, in a sense, and cornerback Desmond King pointed out the biggest similarity philosophy-wise.
The Gophers run on 60.5 percent of their plays, but use misdirection to take shots down the field. Sounds familiar, right?
“I see a very similar offense as ours,” King said. “They want to run the ball, run the ball, then play-action you and take a shot down the field. They have a really good quarterback in Mitch Leidner and we have to be ready for him.”
A sizable (pun intended) part of that play action game lies with the aforementioned 6-foot-10 tight end in Nate Wozniak. The junior wasn’t a major part of the passing game before this season, but has seven catches for 83 yards so far this season.
And in case you didn’t catch it, to repeat: he’s 6-foot-10, 275 pounds. Ferentz called him “gigantic” on Tuesday, and Iowa players agreed. Linebacker Ben Niemann has the assignment on Wozniak, and kind of laughed when asked whether or not he’s looking forward to dealing with a tight end of that stature. Niemann said staying disciplined when the play action comes is vital.
“I’ll be matching up with him and I’ve got to be good there,” Niemann said. “I kind of view it as a challenge. I’m up for it.”
Really, everything defensively is vital on Saturday.
It’s a big game, in every sense of the word. Big matters and talent matters, and the Hawkeyes will need to overcome both.
“It’s going to be a big challenge for us matching up size wise, so we’re going to have to do a great job with our technique,” Ferentz said. “The biggest thing on defense is everybody has to be where they’re supposed to be there, and No. 2, we have to tackle better. Those two areas have cost us some big plays.”
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