Minnesota takes on Iowa in the battle for Floyd of Rosedale this Saturday in Minneapolis at 3:00 p.m. on FOX. To keep any hope alive for the division title, this is a must-win game for both teams. P.J. Fleck has yet to beat Iowa in his tenure at Minnesota, and it’s been since 2014 since the Gophers have beaten their rival.
Before every game, I’ll ask a reporter who covers the Gophers upcoming opponent to give us a view from the opponent’s perspective.
I asked Jonah Parker from Black Heart Gold Pants’ of SBNation six questions to give us some inside details and perspective on Iowa.
Huge thanks to Jonah for giving us his thoughts!
Follow Jonah on Twitter: @JPinIC_BHGP
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1. Iowa is coming off a successful 2021 season, where they went 10-4 overall and 7-3 in conference play. They won the Big Ten West division but lost in the Big Ten Championship game. They would later go on and lose their first bowl game since 2016. Kirk Ferentz is entering his 24th year at Iowa. What were the expectations for Iowa entering this season? How would you grade their season so far?
We ran a series of pre-season polls with our audience to gauge expectations and the consensus came out somewhere between 8-4 and 9-3. That’s higher than the Vegas over/under that was set at 7.5 in the preseason, so I think it’s safe to say most Iowa fans are a bit disappointed with the potential win total for the year. But more importantly, fans are really frustrated with the way the season has played out. Iowa’s defense is truly elite and the special teams units is top notch, but the offense is inexcusably bad on the season. That’s led to a pair of close losses that at the time felt really inexcusable. In retrospect, Illinois has proven to be OK this season, but I think most Hawkeye fans feel if the offense was remotely competent most of the season, this team would be sitting at 10-2 and firmly in the driver’s seat in the West instead of facing must-win situations the next two weeks.
2. Iowa’s offense finished 13th in the Big Ten in total offense last year but still had a successful season. Statistically, the offense has taken a step backwards this year. The Hawkeyes rank 119th in rushing offense, 123rd in passing offense, and 124th in scoring offense. Kirk Ferentz has stuck with Spencer Petras at quarterback all year long. Why has the offense struggled so much this year? What’s your take with Kirk sticking with Petras all year long?
I’ve said to everyone that’s asked, you don’t get to dead last nationally in total offense (and that’s where Iowa was most of the season and they sit at 130th this week) by just having one problem. The Hawkeyes have a LOT of issues on offense and they each compound and complicate each other. The biggest issue, and the one that I think was overlooked coming into the year, has been the offensive line. It’s been as bad as I can remember from an Iowa front and that was not the expectation coming in. While the Hawkeyes lost Tyler Linderbaum to the draft, they returned several players with game experience from a season ago. But they’re starting a sophomore at LT who has been very up and down. RT was an issue in 2021, so the staff tried moving guard Connor Colby out to tackle and putting Jack Plumb on the bench. That proved to be a disaster, but was something they stuck with for weeks. Logan Jones is a converted defensive tackle playing center, as was Linderbaum before him, but he is learning on the job. And Nick DeJong has been forced into way too many reps at guard due to injuries to Justin Britt and now Beau Stephens. Things looked better when the staff finally moved Colby inside with Plumb at RT, but the injury to Stephens meant Iowa was again playing with something other than their best five linemen and it showed against Wisconsin.
The issues up front have meant that running the ball has not been easy. As you noted, the Hawkeyes are 119th in rushing offense and that simply isn’t a winning number for a team built around the idea of controlling the clock, not turning the ball over and playing ahead of the chains. The result has been an offense that doesn’t want to throw the ball being forced to throw the ball. That get’s even more difficult when six of your seven returning scholarship receivers are injured the first three weeks of the season. Those guys have slowly been working back, but Iowa remains without their best offensive weapon, Keagan Johnson, whose name should be familiar to Gopher fans after his 27-yard touchdown reception in the 4th quarter a season ago.
So you’ve had an offense that wants to run the ball, unable to run the ball and forced to pass it, but doing it without anyone to throw to. Add to that the offensive line issues that make it difficult to run the ball are perhaps even worse in pass protection. Then you have a statuesque quarterback in Spencer Petras who can’t move or escape the pocket and you have a real recipe for disaster. That’s what we’ve gotten.
Now, most Hawkeye fans would acknowledge that Petras is probably third or fourth on the list of reasons the offense has been bad, but statistically he has not been good. He wasn’t good last year. And most importantly, his lack of mobility exacerbates the issues present on the offensive line. But for whatever reason, the staff has refused to move on from him save for the second half against Ohio State. That went predictably terrible and Petras has been re-entrenched ever since. In that time, the offense has looked better as the line has settled in some, but it’s hard to know how much of that was imply due to a drop-off in defensive competition. Last week when the Hawkeyes again faced a strong defensive team, the offense looked miserable. I suspect that’s how it will look on Saturday.
3. With the offense being one of the worst in the country, the defense is one of the best. They rank 8th in run defense, 10th in pass defense and 5th in scoring defense. No doubt that the defense and special teams has kept Iowa in games and have led them to wins. What’s the strength of the Iowa defense? What makes them one of the best in the nation?
It’s not the most pleasing answer, but there really is nothing special about this defense. This is just your prototypical Phil Parker defense with bunch of really good players who all understand their role so incredibly well and are almost never out of position. They have depth along the front four that allows them to rotate and keep guys fresh to rush the passer, quality corners who can play in man coverage or zone, two of the best linebackers in the nation (and a third who is out for the season) and a pair of safeties who have been very disciplined in the passing game while being explosive when coming up to help in run support. They all work together in a way that is a lot of fun to watch. Guys stay in their lane, take good pursuit angles and all of a sudden there is a swarm of Hawkeyes on the ball when it looked like there might be a hole.
Schematically, there is nothing special about it. Parker has shifted his philosophy a bit and will play a 4-2-5 against 11 personnel with the fifth DB being a hybrid safety/slot corner instead of a pure corner. That has really become Iowa’s base defense unless opponents run heavier personnel and that’s helped to mitigate the loss of Jestin Jacobs in the middle. But there aren’t a ton of games in the back end. They will try to disguise some things and mix man on half the field with zone on the other half, but largely it’s just 11 guys who are where they are supposed to be and telling opponents they will need to take the underneath option successfully 8-10 times in a row if they want to score points. Most opponents have struggled to do that. Some have gotten impatient and the secondary is excellent at forcing turnovers in those spots. And when the field condenses inside the redzone, they’re really good at covering ground and forcing field goals.
4. Can you give us a few players on offense and defense that Minnesota players should know about before the game?
Let’s start on the offensive side where there are fewer names to know. Out of the backfield, look for Kaleb Johnson to lead the way. He’s a true freshman out of Ohio who is the real deal. He’s poised to set the freshman rushing record at Iowa this season and has really come on strong over the last several weeks with a breakout 200 yard performance against Purdue two weeks ago. He’s a physical runner that tends to bounce off the first tackler and has the speed to take one 75 yards to the house as he did in West Lafeyette. The question there is really whether there is anything resembling a running lane for him to hit.
In the passing game, things really come down to Sam LaPorta. The tight end has more than twice as many catches as anyone else on the team (another reminder that every receiver on the roster has missed time this season due to injury) and he’s the leading receiver by more than 200 yards. The Hawkeyes have really utilized him in the slot and split out wide this season with all the injuries at receiver and he has proven to be Spencer Petras’ favorite target by a mile. Beyond LaPorta. Nico Ragaini is a name I would throw out there. With Keagan Johnson out, Ragaini is Iowa’s best deep threat. He typically plays out of the slot and has shown an ability to come over the middle and break a tackle or two as well when healthy.
On the defensive side of the ball, linebacker Jack Campbell is the heart and soul of this team. He’s an All-American that just seems to be everywhere. On the outside, Riley Moss was an All-American a season ago but has really not been tested much this year. Instead teams have tried to attack Cooper DeJean, a converted safety forced to play corner with starter Terry Roberts out several weeks. DeJean has made teams pay as he leads the team with four interceptions on the year, including two returned for touchdowns.
Up front, Noah Shannon is a name that should be familiar to Gopher fans. The former Minnesota commit is the key cog in the middle and has done a really good job of eating blockers in the running game. In the passing game, it’s just about everyone else getting into the action. Lukas Van Ness is being talked about as a potential first rounder in some places. Going by the nickname Hercules, the 275-pounder comes complete with a six pack and splits time between defensive end and tackle. He’s tied for the team lead in sacks at 6 on the season with defensive end and pass rush specialist Joe Evans, who typically only sees the field in obvious passing situations or select personnel groupings. Deontae Craig isn’t far behind with 5.5 sacks of his own as he has really come into his own this season. Logan Lee rounds things out at DT with three sacks on the year. Parker really likes to rotate 8-9 guys along the defensive line to keep players fresh and I suspect given the size of Minnesota’s OL you’ll see full use of the rotation this week and learn several more names on the DL Saturday.
5. Iowa was the Big Ten’s least active team in the transfer portal in 2021-2022. Out of the 103 players to transfer to a Big Ten institution this year, only one went to Iowa. With the struggles on offense, do you see Iowa being more active in the transfer portal after the season or should we expect Iowa to to rarely be a player in the portal?
It’s really hard to say how this will shake out going forward. Iowa wasn’t inactive in the portal for lack of trying last year. The Hawkeyes were really close to adding a pair of offensive linemen who ended up and Michigan and Penn State. Both reportedly received six figure NIL deals before the Hawkeyes had a collective up and running. In the past, Kirk Ferentz has taken 2-3 transfers per year and had some success doing so (everyone knows Charlie Jones transferred from Iowa to Purdue but often forget he first transferred to Iowa from Buffalo). But that was before it took money to land transfers. Ferentz has been pretty vocal about not being a fan of paying to attract players and preferring Iowa’s collective spend its money on the players already in the program, but it seems college football (and perhaps moreso basketball) is headed another direction so it’s hard to know just how he will approach the portal going forward. I suspect we see Iowa land a couple of players on the offensive side of the ball this offseason, but I also think the emphasis on paying for portal players by many creates an opportunity for a staff that prides itself on finding under the radar players to mine the junior college ranks in a way they haven’t for close to two decades.
6. This weekend will be the 116th meeting all-time between the Hawkeyes and the Gophers. At stake is one of the coolest rivalry trophies in college football, a 98-pound pig, the Floyd of Rosedale. Gophers fans know that the one team P.J. Fleck hasn’t beaten Iowa yet. The last time Minnesota won Floyd was in 2014. This game is huge for both teams if they still want to contend for the division title. The Gophers are 3 point favorites as it should be a cold one in Minneapolis. What does Iowa need to do to keep Floyd? What is your prediction for the game and why?
If Iowa wants to win this one, they absolutely have to sell out to slow down Mo Ibrahim and the Minnesota rushing attack and force whoever ends up playing QB for the Gophers to beat them through the air. The Hawkeyes defense has proven time and again this season (and in general year after year) that if they can force teams to throw they can force them to turn the ball over. The Iowa offense has serious issues that won’t be fixed by Saturday so wining the turnover battle and converting mistakes into points is critical for coming out ahead.
Ultimately, though, I think Ibrahim does what he has done all year and finds a way to churn out 125-150 yards on 30+ carries and the Gophers wear down an Iowa defense that is forced to play far too many snaps.
I’ve got Minnesota winning this one 16-13.