After capping off a 4-0 run through nonconference play against the Syracuse Orangemen at TCF Bank Stadium last Saturday, the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers are now undefeated heading into Big Ten play for the first time since the 2008 season, when they would ultimately make a trip to the Insight Bowl.
With some strong efforts from the Golden Gopher athletic department, Minnesota's success has brought a buzz to the football program that hasn't been given much recognition in quite some time, and a return trip to a bowl game is well within the Gophers' sights.
Enter the Iowa Hawkeyes, who came into the season pegged as a front-to-middle of the pack team in the conference, with senior quarterback James Vandenberg leading the charge.
The Hawkeyes have taken their lumps in nonconference play, however, as they suffered a disappointing loss to in-state rival Iowa State and then fell to Central Michigan last week.
Both of the wins that Iowa has earned this season have come with some difficulty, as the Hawkeyes squeaked by Northern Illinois 18-17 in the season opener and pushed past Northern Iowa 27-16 in Week 2.
Even with those struggles, however, the Hawkeyes head into Saturday's tilt as eight-point favorites over the Gophers, who haven't won at Kinnick Stadium since November of 1999.
Leading into the season, you would have thought the matchup to watch would be MarQueis Gray against the Iowa defense since the dynamic (sometimes enigmatic) quarterback is looking to make his final impressions on NFL scouts in his senior season.
Gray's high-ankle sprain has changed that plan, and as we saw last weekend against Syracuse, the Golden Gopher defense might be much better than expected, as it held one of the top passing quarterbacks in the country in check for most of the evening.
For Iowa, Vandenberg has had his share of struggles this season, as he's only passed for 808 total yards in the four games he's played in while throwing only one touchdown.
Should those struggles continue, walk-on Mark Weisman will be counted on once again as he has been for the past two weekends, rushing for 330 yards and reaching the end zone six times overall in those two games.
Golden Gophers head coach Jerry Kill has already ruled out Gray for this weekend's tilt, so the ball will once again be handed to sophomore Max Shortell, who has been outstanding in one-and-a-half games of work, throwing for 491 yards and rushing for 37 more while throwing four touchdowns vs. only one interception.
The 11:00am CST matchup is being aired on ESPN 2, but likely won't be getting the national attention is probably deserves because both teams have plenty to play for.
For Iowa, it comes down to getting its game back on the right track after a rough nonconference schedule. They can't afford to slip further with a trip to East Lansing to face the Michigan State Spartans after next week's bye.
For Minnesota, the offense needs to methodically move the ball against an Iowa defense that ranks 21st in the country.
And let's not forget about Floyd the Pig, a trophy that the two teams have been battling for since 1935 and something Minnesota has had it's hands on for two straight seasons.
In the end, I expect coach Kill to have his team ready to play and for Shortell to pace the offense to a 27-20 win and a spot in the top 25—somewhere the Golden Gophers haven't been in four years.
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