Key Matchups When the Iowa Hawkeyes Play the Minnesota Golden Gophers
After a devastating home loss to college football powerhouse Central Michigan Chippewas, Iowa will have a chance to get the season back on course, as it faces its oldest rival in the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
The Gophers, suffering through four years of this guy, have found their way, and at 4-0, are one of only three undefeated teams in the Big Ten.
With close victories over UNLV, Western Michigan and Syracuse, as well as a blowout win over FCS New Hampshire, Minnesota hasn't had to overcome a monstrous schedule.
On the other hand, neither has Iowa, and the Hawkeyes are 2-2.
Regardless, the Gophers see Iowa as one more step toward their first bowl-eligible season since 2009.
On the other hand, Iowa, which has been bowl eligible every season since 2001, looks to be on the verge of ending that streak.
The Lowdown on the Minnesota Golden Gophers
Head Coach: Jerry Kill (second year as head coach)
Last Game: 17-10 over Syracuse
2012 season so far, in 20 words or Less: One of three undefeated Big Ten teams. It hasn't been pretty, but this is the best Gopher squad in years.
Minnesota Record, Last Five Years: 2011, 3-9; 2010, 3-9; 2009, 6-7; 2008, 7-6; 2007, 1-11
2012 Scoring Offense: 29.8 PPG (sixth in conference)
2012 Scoring Defense: 16.8 (fourth in conference)
Returning Starters: Six on offense, six on defense and both specialists
Offensive Scheme: Spread/Multiple
Defensive Scheme: 4-3
All-time Record Against Hawkeyes: 61-42-2
Last Five Meetings vs. Iowa: 2011, 22-21; 2010, 27-24; 2009, 0-12; 2008, 0-55; 2007, 16-21
Key Injuries: Quarterback MarQueis Gray, unlikely; linebacker Lamonte Edwards, questionable; offensive lineman Zach Mottla, questionable.
Iowa vs. an Empty Trophy Chest
Iowa has four trophy games: Iowa State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Currently, none of those trophies reside in Iowa City. The Cy-Hawk trophy is already lost for the year, and Iowa doesn't play Wisconsin, so the Heartland Trophy will reside in Madison until at least 2013.
Out of all the trophies that have been missing from Iowa City over the last year, Floyd of Rosedale stings the most of all.
This is because in 2010 and 2011, man-for-man, Minnesota was an inferior team to Iowa.The Hawks lost those games because of sloppy, uninspired play, and in what has become a theme over the last three seasons, poor coaching.
This year, Minnesota is not an "inferior" opponent.
Thus, if the Hawkeyes are to take Floyd back, they will have to play—and coach—better than they have shown themselves capable of all season.
Iowa vs. Game-Planning vs. the Minnesota Quarterback
Starting quarterback MarQueis Gray has the dreaded high-ankle sprain. In other words, he could come back next week or the week after or it could be a month.
Backup quarterback Max Shortell is a much better passer, but he is nowhere near as dangerous a runner.
Officially, Gray is unlikely to play on Saturday, but stranger things have happened. After all, Iowa running back Jordan Canzeri has been cleared to play (per the Quad-City Times) after tearing his ACL six months ago.
This presents a problem for the Hawkeyes, as Gray and Shortell are distinctly different quarterbacks and require distinctly different game plans.
On the other hand, any quarterback can look like Tom Brady if he's got enough time in the pocket.
Iowa vs. Letting the Minnesota Quarterback Play Pitch and Catch
Not surprisingly, the Iowa pass rush has been inconsistent at best and nonexistent at worst this year.
Surprisingly, Iowa has not employed many blitz packages to offset this issue.
In effect, opposing quarterbacks have been able to get comfortable in the pocket—particularly in the first half—and pick and choose their receivers.
The Minnesota quarterback—whichever one plays—will be the best signal-caller Iowa has faced this year.
The Hawkeye pass rush cannot afford to let him stand in the pocket untouched, and if that means bringing an extra man on a blitz, then that's what it has to do.
Iowa Defense vs. the First Half
Much has been made of defensive coordinator Phil Parker's halftime adjustments, but this doesn't take into consideration a defense that has looked unprepared to begin every game this year.
In the first half, the 2012 Iowa defense has allowed 55 total points or 13.75 points-per-game.
It has also given up 3.7 yards per carry and a whopping 8.6 yards per pass.
Ryan Radcliffe, the CMU quarterback, completed 13-of-16 for 154 yards in the first half. This was a quarterback who had completed 50.8 percent of his passes on the year heading into the Iowa game.
Parker has to be given credit for making changes, but he also has to prepare his defense to be ready from the first snap.
Iowa Offense vs. the Second Half
Meanwhile, the offense, or more specifically the passing game, has exactly the opposite problem.
As Iowa fans know, the Hawks' first drive is scripted, meaning the coaches and players know what plays they're going to run before they see what the defense does.
Offensive coordinator Greg Davis, James Vandenberg and his receivers seem to prefer this to playing on the fly.
JVB's statistics plummet as the game goes on.
In the first quarter, Vandenberg has an efficiency rating of 183.06. In the second quarter, his efficiency rating is 101.53.
In the third and fourth quarters, he falls apart, with ratings of 96.37 and 92.02.
Iowa and Minnesota vs. a Clean Game
Minnesota is currently tied for the most penalties in the Big Ten, while it is eighth in terms of yardage penalized.
Meanwhile, Iowa has the fourth-fewest penalties in the conference, but the third-most yardage.
The reason for this is that Minnesota has taken a number of small penalties—illegal formation or motion penalties—which is not surprising on a young team that is still adjusting to a new system.
On the other hand, Iowa is taking careless personal fouls that account for a great deal more yardage.
This is the kind of issue that could make the difference, just as it did in Iowa's loss to Central Michigan. The Hawks took nine penalties for 106 yards against the Chippewas.
As with most close games—should this contest turn into a close game—the smarter, more disciplined team will win.
Iowa vs. Pressure
The Hawkeyes have lost two in a row to lousy Minnesota teams.
They are coming off an embarrassing home loss to a mediocre MAC team.
As already mentioned, the trophy case is bare.
It is homecoming.
Perhaps, as recently indicated by Bleacher Report Big Ten lead blogger Adam Jacobi, Kirk Ferentz is essentially untouchable, due to the most absurd contract in college football.
Nevertheless, he will feel something when his own fans boo him and the young men he, as head coach, is responsible for nurturing into adulthood, at least athletically.
And that is exactly what they will do if Iowa fails to show up against the Gophers.
Things could get ugly this season, not only on the playing fields but in the stands.
Iowa Offense vs. the Minnesota Pass Rush
Minny is second in the Big Ten with 11 sacks.
That may be the biggest surprise of this season's Gopher squad, given that the last two seasons have seen Minnesota with one of the worst pass rushes in the country. In fact, last year, the Gophers were 10th in the conference in sacks, and in 2010, they were last in the country.
Even more impressively, Minnesota is getting to the quarterback without the help of blitzers.
All 11 of the Gophers' sacks have been registered by defensive linemen, with senior D.L. Wilhite notching a conference-best 4.5 sacks.
Meanwhile, the Hawkeye offensive line has done a good job protecting its quarterback. After allowing six sacks to Northern Illinois to begin the season, the offensive line hasn't given up a sack since.
Iowa vs. the Onside Kick or Any Sort of Special Teams Surprise
It seems that Kirk Ferentz neglects to prepare his team for any sort of special teams trickery, if an onside kick can be called trickery.
Going back to 2005, the Hawks have been unsuccessful in four of five onside kicks in which they've been the receiving team. The one exception was 2009 Arkansas State.
In some fairness, two of those onside kicks were—now illegal—"trick" plays against Minnesota in 2010 and 2011, but as the 2011 one wasn't at all surprising, it is still safe to call it a lack of preparedness.
Throw into that successful fake punts that have caught Iowa off guard—2010 Eastern Illinois and Wisconsin—and Iowa is a special teams disaster waiting to happen.
Notice the players in the adjoining video after the play. They are shrugging their shoulders and pointing fingers. That is a confused team. That is an ill-prepared team. That is a poorly coached team.
Minnesota vs. Punting and Place Kicking
Speaking of special teams issues, Minnesota is the second-worst field-goal kicking team in the Big Ten—and 109th in the country—having made 44.4 percent of its nine field-goal attempts.
It also has the second-worst punting game in the conference, averaging 36.0 yards per punt. This is on the heels of 2011, which saw the Gophers field the worst punting team in the conference and the 115th in the country.
Keys to an Iowa Victory
At this point, it is pointless to break down what Iowa does and doesn't have to do to beat Minnesota.
Iowa and Ferentz have to get back to what made the Hawkeyes successful in the early years of the millennium.
Ferentz doesn't have to change his basic schemes, as so many fans insist. He simply has to get back to doing what he formerly did, and for some reason, no longer does.
As Hawkeye blog Blackheartgoldpants recently pointed out, Iowa football under Ferentz means "do the basic, foundational things well and then everything else will fall into place."
If one wants to know why Iowa has struggled recently, one needs to see how Iowa is doing with the little things—special teams, penalties, sloppy tackling, leaving points on the field, turnovers. One will quickly see that Iowa has not been dotting its i's and crossing its t's.
As it has not been an issue with a single player or even a single team, but it has recurred over the better part of the last eight seasons, it's safe to call it a systemic issue.
In effect, unless Ferentz figures out how to get back to that simple, yet successful, system of 2002-2004, expect the Hawks to continue to be a mediocre, at best, team.