IOWA CITY — The Minnesota Golden Gophers are 9-0. The Gophers are ranked No. 8 in the country. The Gophers have one of the most balanced and vibrant offenses in the Big Ten.
The Gophers have loquacious head coach P.J. Fleck, who’s trending toward Big Ten coach of the year. ESPN’s Holly Rowe talked with Fleck on the TCF Bank field last Saturday after Minnesota (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten) beat then-No. 4 Penn State. The Gophers have last Saturday's win over Penn State.
The Gophers have an efficient and explosive passing game, two wide receivers in the Big Ten’s top five statistically. The Gophers have three running backs who’ve done good to great running back things in the Big Ten. The Gophers have the No. 6 defense in the Big Ten. That sounds average, maybe, but consider the Big Ten has seven defenses in the nation’s top 20 and that Minnesota is No. 15 (309.8 yards allowed per game) in the nation.
“They’re doing a great job at turning that around,” Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley said. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence. We have to do everything we can to make it hard for them.”
The Gophers don’t have Floyd of Rosedale, the 98-pound bronze pig trophy that the No. 20 Hawkeyes (6-3, 3-3) have held for four consecutive years.
There’s that part of the equation. Minnesota has the magnitude this week. The Iowa side is somewhat beleaguered. A furious rally at Wisconsin last week fell a yard short of tying when Stanley was tackled on a QB draw during a two-point attempt late in the fourth quarter.
Iowa isn’t 9-0, it doesn’t have a balanced and vibrant offense and it doesn’t have a win over Penn State.
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It can be the spoiler and that’s going to have to do it for the Hawkeyes, even though they’ll say that’s not the motivation they’re looking for.
“For us, it’s getting to where we play our best football,” Stanley said. “I think there’s a lot more internal motivation than just ruining a perfect season.”
The Hawkeyes have a chance to have senior linebacker Kristian Welch back this week. He’s missed the last three games with a stinger injury. The Badgers do this to a lot of teams, but the 300 rushing yards they put on the Hawkeyes last week helped build a 15-minute advantage in time of possession and, let’s face it, that’s a lot of yards.
“I don’t know if he’ll be able to play or not, but at least he’s showing improvement now, so that’s a reason for hopefully some optimism,” Ferentz said.
Also, the news on wide receiver Brandon Smith is encouraging, although he’s doubtful this week.
“He’s actually out there running out the trainers and starting to move around, change of direction, those types of things,” Ferentz said. “We’ll see how fast it comes along, but it’s at least encouraging.”
It’s easy to fold this into “Hey, here comes No. 8 Minnesota, look what the Gophers are doing.” Minnesota is having one of those seasons, and, frankly, it’s about time.
The Hawkeyes are still on the hook here. On one hand, the Gophers would be happy to bury Iowa and take the pig. On the other hand, Iowa could still win 10 games with a bowl victory.
Ferentz was asked big-picture kinds of questions Tuesday. First, what about the offense?
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“I’ll leave all the grading and evaluations until postseason,” Ferentz said. “That’s kind of my mode of operation. We didn’t score enough to win the other day. We didn’t stop them enough to win. That’s kind of the long and short of it. They got more points than us.”
That answer is fine. There are three games left. But what about the about-face the offense pulled when it fell behind 21-6 going into the fourth quarter at Camp Randall Stadium? Fearing possessions were running out (and they were), Iowa had 40 passing yards before the game plan went through the air. Stanley and wide receiver Tyrone Tracy connected five times for 130 yards, including a 75-yard TD, in the second half.
The comeback ended with the failed two-point run, but that was as fierce as the Hawkeyes offense has looked in three games against ranked teams this season (Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin).
It was something, and that’s saying something for an offense that has scored just 22 TDs this season (12th in the Big Ten, behind Michigan State but ahead of Rutgers and Northwestern).
“We were looking at possessions and just felt like we needed to push the envelope a little bit and really get things going,” Ferentz said. “But we’ll stay open to any possible way to move the ball a little bit better and score more points.”
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