7:00 PM EST, FS1 – Line: Iowa -3.5, Over/Under: 58
A pair of Big Ten rivals look to build some momentum following a disappointing start to this abridged season, as the Minnesota Golden Gophers play host to the Iowa Hawkeyes with the Floyd of Rosedale trophy on the line from TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. From the moment that the Big Ten announced their plans to embark on a shortened 2020 campaign due to the COIVD-19 pandemic that has ravaged the globe, the margin for error became razor thin for the league’s inhabitants, who would not enjoy the benefit of easing into their conference schedule following a series of matchups against lesser competition. Essentially, there would be no dress rehearsals this Fall, which may not mean much to it’s elite programs, but it could be particularly perilous for everyone else in this proverbial baptism by fire. And that’s where both of these teams find themselves, starting with Iowa (1-2, 1-2 in Big Ten), who came up short in each of their first two contests of 2020. From what we saw in those two outings the Hawkeyes certainly could’ve used some reps against a cupcake or two, with the Offense a mistake-prone mess; the Season Opener at Purdue (24-20) featured 460 total yards of Offense negated by two lost fumbles and a whopping ten penalties for 100 yards lost, while the following week against Northwestern (21-20) was marred by three interceptions. Longtime Had Coach, Kirk Ferentz, wasn’t overly critical of his charges, choosing instead to dwell on how close they were to achieving their goals. Of course, Ferentz has seen this movie before and is well aware that patience and staying the course can pay off in the long run; now in his twenty-second season at Iowa, the 65-year old has routinely made the most of the talent at his disposal, amassing a 163-106 record (.606) since arriving in Iowa City back in 1999, earning four Big Ten Coach of the Year awards, along with AP National Coach of the Year honors as well in 2002.
Coming off a 10-3 finish which culminated in a 49-24 victory over USC in the Holiday Bowl, there was plenty of optimism for Iowa to challenge for a place in the Big Ten Championship Game on December 18th. After all, they were returning a wealth of talent on the offensive side of the football, including each of their two leading rushers, Tyler Goodson (43 CAR, 233 YDS, 5.4 Y/A, 3 TD) and Mekhi Sargent (24 CAR, 122 YDS, 5.1 Y/A, 3 TD), and their four top pass-catchers, Ihmir Smith-Marsette (7 REC, 84 YDS, 12.0 Y/R, 0 TD), Tyrone Tracey (8 REC, 90 YDS, 11.3 Y/R, 0 TD), Nico Ragaini (10 REC, 109 YDS, 10.9 Y/R, 0 TD), and Brandon Smith (9 REC, 88 YDS, 9.8 Y/R, 2 TD). With the Offensive Line typically one of the most cohesive units in the country, let alone the conference, the blueprint was set for a potentially prolific attack in Iowa City. However, you’ll notice that we haven’t mentioned the situation under center, which unfortunately has seen the most significant transition from 2019 to the present day, as Spencer Petras (54.3%, 648 YDS, 5.6 Y/A, 2 TD, 3 INT, 101.8 RATE) looks to take the reins from the graduated Nathan Stanley. If it felt like the latter had been at Iowa for ages, you wouldn’t be wrong; in four years with the Hawkeyes, Stanley started THIRTY-NINE games in which he accumulated a 27-12 portfolio with 8,927 yards and sixty-three touchdowns. Petras, a Redshirt Sophomore, served as his primary deputy last season, appearing in just two contests tossing only ten passes for a paltry twenty-five yards. Needless to say, he lacks experience, and as we stated in the opening, he really hasn’t benefitted from diving headfirst into the conference schedule. Curiously, Ferentz didn’t necessarily approach the first few outings with a conservative gameplan to accommodate his young Quarterback; far from it in fact, as Petras attempted a staggering eighty-nine passes in those games, including fifty in the latter of the two, completing 53.9% of his attempts for 481 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. Needless to say, that’s uncharacteristic offensive play from Iowa, who we’ve come to associate with a grounded attack, which certainly wasn’t the case against Northwestern, rushing for just seventy-seven yards on twenty-three carries. Granted, Petras’ play on that evening gutted any momentum that they ground game could have provided; the Hawkeyes actually led the affair 17-0 after the First Quarter, scoring on each of their three possessions, but couldn’t find a way to close out the Wildcats with the run thanks to that dubious trifecta of turnovers. It also didn’t help that the Defense absolutely capitulated to what has generally been an inferior opponent; the defeat marked just the fifth in the all-time series between the schools, as the visitors relentlessly pounded away at the Hawkeyes on the ground, rushing for 143 yards and three touchdowns on a staggering SIXTY carries. Defensively, they failed to create the requisite pressure to get off the field, as the visiting side converted 10-of-19 third downs, which in stark contrast to the dismal 6-of-17 for the hosts. Iowa said goodbye to Edge-Rusher, A.J. Epenesa, in the Offseason, with his 14.0 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, and four forced fumbles moving on to the NFL, where he was selected fifty-fourth overall by the Buffalo Bills in the 2020 Draft. Fortunately, the faithful in Iowa City wouldn’t have to wait long for this particular unit to straighten themselves out…
When we last saw Iowa, they managed to snap their two-game losing streak by hammering Michigan State in a 49-7 rout that was about as one-sided as the final score would indicate. The hosts opened the afternoon with thirty-five unanswered points, highlighted by a tenacious Defense that clearly took their thumping the previous weekend to heart; the Hawkeyes manhandled the Spartans in this phase of the affair, permitting just 285 total yards on ten first downs, including a mere fifty-nine rushing yards on thirty-two carries, and 7-of-20 on third down, while also forcing three turnovers. Furthermore, the Offense received some much-needed help from the Defense and Special Teams; in a wild sequence towards the end of the first half, Junior Receiver, Charlie Jones (10 RET, 150 YDS, 15.0 Y/R, 1 TD), returned a punt fifty-four yards for a touchdown, only to be followed twenty-seven seconds later by Junior Defensive Back, Riley Moss (18 TKL, 1 INT, 2 PD, 1 TD), who returned an interception fifty-four yards as well to the end zone. Opposing Quarterback, Rocky Lombardi, was embarrassed to the tune of 17-of-37 passing for 227 yards, and three interceptions, while Petras simply managed the game on 15-of-27 passing for 167 yards, a score, and most importantly zero turnovers. Iowa also rushed for a season-best 224 yards and four touchdowns on forty-one carries, with the aforementioned Goodson totaling 113 yards on fourteen carries and two touchdowns, while Sargent scored twice as well paired with thirty-one yards on eight attempts. If they can continue to play at this level within the trenches then there is no reason to believe that they can’t get back to .500 and in turn best tonight’s opponent, Minnesota, for the sixth consecutive year.
Meanwhile, 2020 is proving to be a harsh reality for a number of teams within the Big Ten, and Minnesota (1-2, 1-2 in Big Ten) is no different as they too have had to dig themselves out of an early hole in the standings. Last season, the Golden Gophers were arguably the most surprising team in the country, let alone the Big Ten, putting together a stellar 11-2 campaign, which is their best since joining the conference back in 1953 and their most wins overall since 1904. If there is a rising star within the coaching ranks, it’s undoubtedly P.J. Fleck, who in a very short period of time has managed to right the proverbial ship in Minneapolis, guiding the program from 5-7 in his first season to bowl eligibility in his second, to a place in the Conference Championship Game in the third. The 39-year old has been equally adept at boosting the talent base at Minnesota and in turn motivating his charges, with his infectious personality and approach evolving his team into easily the most explosive outfit within the Western Division of the league; they averaged 34.1 points on 432.0 total yards in 2019, leading the Big Ten West in both categories, spearheading their surprising 9-0 start (and subsequent rise to seventh in the Polls) which coincidentally came to a screeching halt against none other than their opponent tonight, Iowa. That fateful 23-19 defeat saw the Hawkeyes race out to a commanding 20-3 advantage midway through the second stanza, with the Gophers frantically rallying back though ultimately coming up short. The aforementioned Ferentz serves as the next obstacle for Fleck, who is 0-3 against the longest-tenured Head Coach in the Big Ten.
With that said, the real question that we have of Fleck is if he’ll be able to sustain the success that he enjoyed at Minnesota last season. After all, he charted a similar course of improvement at his previous job, Western Michigan, where he took a 1-11 team to 13-1 in four short years, before departing for greener pastures. Needless to say, he leveled up once, so how long before he does it again? In the meantime, it’s clear that 2020 is proving to be a unique challenge for a variety of reasons; Offensive Coordinator, Kirk Ciarocca, left for Penn State, leading Receiver, Tyler Johnson, graduated, while fellow Wideout, Rashod Bateman (24 REC, 302 YDS, 12.3 Y/R, 1 TD), initially opted out, and the Defense lost a wealth of talent, including both Safeties and much of the Defensive Line. Granted, Bateman would eventually opt back into the season shortly following the Big Ten’s announcement to return, but those are a lot of changes to consider with a schedule that features no weeks off, no cupcakes to ease into league play, and the constant specter of a positive COVID-19 test likely meaning that you’ll be without a player for twenty-one days (due to Big Ten Safety Protocols). Just ask Wisconsin and Illinois about that last bit… Anyways, it’s due to many of those reasons that Minnesota has not enjoyed the fast start that propelled their successful jaunt to the Conference Championship, While the Offense has been fine without the aforementioned Ciarocca pulling the strings and Johnson catching passes, the Defense has been abysmal thus far, particularly in the thirst two games in which they relinquished a ridiculous NINETY-FOUR points on 1,153 total yards. It’s not like they were facing Ohio State, folks, for these losses came against the likes of Michigan (49-24) and Maryland (45-44), with the former having scored forty-five in the two outings since, and the latter still breaking in a young Quarterback. Against the Wolverines, they were physically manhandled on the ground and picked apart through the air, while the Terrapins found little resistance en route to averaging a robust 10.2 yards per play. You’re asking an awful lot of you Offense when your Defense is allowing points and yardage wholesale, which is a problem that is going to be very difficult to correct in this whirlwind campaign featuring no periods to recollect yourself and catch your breath. With that said, if Fleck can in fact find a way to turn things around on that side of the football, one would have to believe that the Gophers will get back to their winning ways, because the Offense remains dynamic enough to make plays on a regular basis. Returning for his third season as the Starting Quarterback, Tanner Morgan (61.6%, 602 YDS, 8.2 Y/A, 3 TD, 2 INT, 139.0 RATE) is as experienced and steady a passer you’ll find in the Big Ten, coming off a Sophomore year in which he threw for 3,253 yards (10.2 Y/A), thirty touchdowns and seven interceptions. Sure, he struggled in the Opener, but has looked progressively more comfortable with each passing week. Of course, it helps to have Bateman back in the fold with the Junior already reeling in twenty-four receptions for 302 yards and a touchdown. It’ll be interesting to see if he can regain his explosiveness from last year, in which he averaged a healthy 20.3 yards per catch opposite of Johnson, but then again stepping his former teammates role has drawn much more attention from opposing Defenses. Stepping into his old role as the vertical threat is fellow Junior, Chris Autman-Bell (6 REC, 162 YDS, 27.0 Y/R, 1 TD), who has only caught six passes thus far but has averaged a whopping 27.0 yards, ensuring that Minnesota can still stretch the field when required.
When we last saw Minnesota, they received a boost defensively at Illinois, where the struggling hosts were without a number of players due to COVID-19, none more noteworthy than their Starting Quarterback. If there was ever an opportunity for Minnesota’s Defense to reset themselves and build some confidence it was last weekend in Champaign, where the visitors comfortably strolled to a 41-14 victory, their first of the season. Defensively, the got after the Illini throughout the affair, relegating them to 287 total yards on fourteen first downs, including a miserable 6-of-17 passing for 106 yards, and 3-of-12 on third down. Furthermore, they were aided by quite the self-destructive streak from the home side, who were flagged for a dozen penalties losing 120 yards. Granted, the run defense was still far from respectable in yielding 181 yards on thirty-six carries, but after getting gashed for 8.2 and 9.1 yards per attempt in the first two games, giving up 5.0 yards per clip is certainly an improvement. And speaking of the ground game, Fleck had to be impressed with his own, as the visiting side churned out a season-high 325 yards on forty-seven carries, led by Mohamed Ibrahim (97 CAR, 571 YDS, 5.9 Y/A, 10 TD), who was a proverbial wrecking ball with a career-best 224 yards and four touchdowns on thirty attempts. The Junior Tailback’s exploits earned him Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors, while he currently leads all rushers within the league in carries (97), yards (571), and touchdowns (10). Such success on the ground ensured that Morgan didn’t have to be very sharp, and he wasn’t, connecting on 17-of-27 passes for 216 yards, a touchdown and an interception, though he continued to rekindle his chemistry with the aforementioned Bateman, who hauled in ten catches for 139 yards and one of those scores. All in all, they’ll need to continue their improvement, for it will likely take more than this to get over on Iowa; when they met last year in Iowa City, the running game was never to be found, amassing a scant sixty-three yards on thirty attempts after falling behind so early. Morgan carried the attack on that day, completing 25-of-36 attempts for 368 yards and a touchdown, though was knocked out of the game for a brief period which saw his backup, Cole Kramer, attempt two passes, one of which was a crucial interception.