A closer look at Friday night’s Big Ten Conference football game between Iowa (1-2) and Minnesota (1-2) at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Kickoff is 6:05 p.m. (FS1).
Iowa piled up 49 points last week in its first victory of the season, smoking Michigan State, 49-7. And it has its top receiver back in the fold.
Ihmir Smith-Marsette returns to action after being suspended for last week’s game because of his arrest Nov. 1 for suspicion of DUI. It’s another weapon for quarterback Spencer Petras, as he continues to settle into the starting job.
Petras competed 15 of 27 passes last week for 167 yards and a touchdown, that to Brandon Smith. The sophomore was able to shake off a three-interception game the week before.
“Spencer’s doing a great job,” said Smith. “It just took him the first two games to get into a rhythm. But he’s doing a really great job.”
The biggest news last week for Iowa was the running game. The Hawkeyes pounded Michigan State for a season-high 226 yards, despite two new starters on the offensive line (Mark Kallenberger at right tackle and Cody Ince at left guard). It is expected those two will start again here, as tackle Coy Cronk continues to fight through an ankle problem and guard Kyler Schott deals with mononucleosis.
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Iowa ran out of the shotgun formation a lot against MSU, which gives defenses another look with which to deal. The jet sweep also was effective, with Charlie Jones running twice for 38 yards.
Smith-Marsette’s return makes that play even more potentially dangerous.
For the first time this season, Iowa got a pretty consistent pass rush last week, which harrassed Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi and forced him to throw three interceptions. That included one by Riley Moss that was returned 54 yards for a touchdown.
The Hawkeyes have had a pick-6 in 13 consecutive seasons. They have at least one interception in their last 10 games.
Iowa’s defense ranks first in the Big Ten in rushing (102 yards per game) and third in scoring (17.3 points per game allowed). Defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon continues to be a force in the middle, as he leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss.
Opposing teams know who he is, no question.
“I really don’t notice if (teams) are paying more attention to me,” Nixon said. “I just kind of play our defense, play to our scheme and then however it plays out, it plays out. I know that in high school teams would double me or change their game plan because of my stature, my size. But other than that, I don’t really focus on if people are focusing on me or not.”
Iowa should have two guys back here from the injured list in middle linebacker Jack Campbell and tackle Austin Schulte. They were anticipated starters at the beginning of the season but missed the first three games.
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said both likely would be limited, as they work back into playing shape.
The Golden Gophers are second in the Big Ten with 15 touchdowns through three games. They average 36.3 points per game, which ranks fourth in the conference.
Running back Mohamed Ibrahim is the Big Ten’s leading rusher with 571 yards, a 190.3 per-game average. He’s also far and away the league’s touchdown leader with 10.
Wide receiver Rashod Bateman is a potential first-round NFL draft pick. He has the size and the skills, torching Illinois last week with 10 catches for 139 yards and a touchdown.
Junior quarterback Tanner Morgan orchestrates this dangerous offense. He set virtually every school single-season passing record last season, including yards (3,253) and touchdowns (30).
Iowa knows Morgan’s ability with the RPO (run-pass option) will be difficult to contain. That’s why stopping, or at least slowing down, Ibrahim in the run game will be very important.
“That’s something that is a big point of emphasis (for them), to get their run game established,” said Iowa safety Jack Koerner. “That opens up some of those RPO passes, where they suck the defense down toward the line and throw those ... passes behind the linebackers and the safeties. So it’s definitely something where we need to be able to stop the run up front, so we don’t have to get as close to the line to allow those deep, crossing passes.”
This is where the Gophers have struggled. Big time.
Minnesota gives up 36 points per game and is last in the Big Ten, allowing 481 yards per game. It did play better in a 41-14 win last week over Illinois, though the Fighting Illini were down to their fourth-string quarterback.
And Illinois was able to rush for 181 yards.
Minnesota’s top two tacklers are Tyler Nubin and Jordan Howden, and they’re defensive backs, which is not good. Junior defensive lineman Boye Mafe does rank among Big Ten leaders in tackles for loss.
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“They have big-play explosive capability on any play anywhere on the field. That’s the first thing to worry about,” Ferentz said. “And then secondly, they know who they are. They have got an identity in all three phases; a very clear identity, in my opinion, and I really respect that. Then most importantly their players buy into that identity and they play hard and they play hard within the system. So they’re sure like a lot like us.”
Iowa has beaten Minnesota five times in a row and 15 of the last 19 meetings. Last year, the Hawkeyes handed the Gophers, ranked seventh, their first loss of the season. Minnesota went 11-2, wining 11 games for the first time since 1904, seven conference games for the first time ever and beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl. Head coach P.J. Fleck has turned around the program in his four years in the Twin Cities but has never beaten Iowa.
Iowa lost a four-point game to Purdue and one-pointer to Northwestern to begin the season before rebounding last week. Minnesota was blown out by Michigan (49-24) in its opener, then lost to Maryland in Week 2, 45-44, in overtime, thanks to a missed extra point in the extra session.
Iowa appears to have a clear advantage in special teams here, by the way, with kicker Keith Duncan, relevatory punter Tory Taylor and dangerous punt returner Charlie Jones, who was named Big Ten special teams player of the week after returning a punt for TD against Michigan State. Will special teams make the difference?
This seems to be another coin-flip type of game for Iowa. You can see the Hawkeyes winning or losing.
But Minnesota’s struggles defensively allow Iowa to win and even its record.
Prediction — Iowa 27, Minnesota 23
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