Stay focused on the game! – No Iowa player should even need a speech this week, but if they do, almost anyone could spell out what this game on Saturday means. If Iowa wins, they can tie for the Big Ten Championship for the first time since 1990, they can set a school record for wins in a season with eleven, and can finish undefeated in the Big Ten for the first time since 1922. There is a lot of talk about which bowl Iowa is going to go to, about whether Brad Banks can win the Heisman, about who would win if they played Ohio State, and whether Iowa can play for the national title, but the team needs to stay focused and prepare for the things that they can control. An 11-1 record, an 8-0 Big Ten record, at least a Big Ten Co-Championship, and at least a top ten finish are among the things that Iowa should be playing for. The other things really do not matter at this point until the game is over on Saturday.
If a player needs motivation besides the goals they can accomplish this season, the rivalry with the Gophers should suffice. I don't think any player, coach, or fan that was at the Metrodome will ever forget the 49-7 loss to Minnesota in Hayden's last game in 1998. It was as embarrassing of a defeat as Iowa has ever suffered in recent years, and it was just disgusting watching Gopher players sprint through the Iowa sideline to take Floyd of Rosedale back to their bench. It wasn't just that they took it back after Floyd was in Iowa City for five years, but it was the way that they did that is still fresh in the minds of many. Players like Minnesota native Ben Sobieski that were in the program at the time will be ready to play tomorrow.
The Hawks did get Floyd back last season in a convincing 42-24 win in Iowa City, but they had lost the last three games in the series with Minnesota. They have lost the last two games in the Metrodome, and have only won five of the ten games between the two teams played in the facility. Iowa has owned Minnesota since the early 1980s when the game is played in Iowa City, but beating the Gophers has been much tougher when the game is in Minnesota. Not only has Iowa had to get involved in shootouts to win in the dome (49-42 in 1994), but they have also been forced to come back from the largest deficit in school history (seventeen points) in order to beat Lou Holtz's Gophers (30-27 in 1986). The last time that Iowa won the Big Ten and went to the Rose Bowl, Minnesota beat the Hawks (31-24) in the dome after the team found out that they clinched the Rose Bowl birth. Neither school has forgotten that game.
Getting a team up for Minnesota most years might require a coach to give a long talk about the history of the rivalry and how much Minnesota people disrespect Iowa. Maybe a coach would have to talk about how a racist group of Minnesota players took cheap shots at star Iowa RB Ozzie Simmons until they knocked him out of the game in 1935 – that is why the governors of the two states made this trophy to relieve the tensions between the two states. However, this year Coach Ferentz and the Hawks have so many reasons to be pumped for this game that I am not sure that the tradition of this rivalry beyond the 1998 or 2000 games will even be talked about very much.
Great teams play great in the trenches - Iowa has one of the top defensive lines in the Big Ten, if not the nation. Junior defensive end Howard Hodges and sophomore defensive end Matt Roth each have eight sacks to lead the Hawkeyes, followed by senior defensive tackle Colin Cole's seven sacks and sophomore defensive end Jonathan Babineaux's six sacks. The Hawkeyes lead the conference with 33 sacks and also top the Big Ten in rushing defense allowing just 67.1 yards per game. This unit and the linebackers have played very well against the run in every game except Indiana, but their ability to put pressure on quarterbacks during the conference schedule has been a big reason for the entire defensive improvement in recent weeks. Teams like Miami of Ohio and Purdue get rid of the ball with quick passes and don't allow defenses much time to put pressure on the quarterback, but the Hawks have feasted on teams like Wisconsin and Michigan that run more traditional offensive schemes. Not only did the DL stuff the run against both schools, but the quarterbacks never had time to get in a rhythm. Much like Minnesota, both Wisconsin and Michigan need the running game to succeed to open up the passing game. The Hawkeye Defense did not allow that to happen against the two foes, and hopefully it will be the same this Saturday.
Minnesota, once again, has a very nice corps of running backs as sophomore Terry Jackson II has stepped in for the injured Marion Barber III to run for 1,168 yards, but Thomas Tapeh has also run for 756 yards. Minnesota was supposed to have good skill players coming into the season, but the offensive line was supposed to be the big question. Although the offense struggled against the defenses of Purdue, Ohio State, and Michigan, the Minnesota OL has been a pleasant surprise as true freshmen at the interior spots have opened enough holes for the Gophers to lead the Big Ten in rushing (234.8 yards per game).
Although the Gophers lead the Big Ten in rushing, their offense has been ineffective at times against the best teams in the league. They were able to run over Michigan State, Northwestern, and Illinois, but when their running game was shut down in their three losses, the passing attack was not good enough to keep the chains moving. The Gophers are last in the Big Ten in passing (163.1 yards per game), and although they have a good touchdown to interception ratio (18:7), most of that success came earlier in the non-league season. Quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq (115-220 for 1,481 yards, 16 TDs, 7 INTs) played very well towards the end of last season and is a passing and running threat, but has struggled with his accuracy in recent weeks. WRs Antoine Burns (31 catches for 331 yards) and Aaron Hosack (22 catches for 448 yards) are both solid receivers, but the passing game has also struggled because standout TE Ben Utecht (27 catches for 347 yards) has been playing hurt since early in the Big Ten season.
Hosack has the ability to create mismatches with the Iowa corners since he is so tall (6-6) and Iowa cornerbacks Antwan Allen and Jovon Johnson are both under 5-10. Utecht can also create mismatches with his size and speed if he is healthy. This Minnesota offense will test the Iowa front seven with their stretch running game and elusive QB in the similar to what Wisconsin did. If the Hawks can respond with the same effort and make Minnesota a one-dimensional passing team, Abdul-Khaliq may struggle.
Iowa continues to roll on offense - Iowa senior quarterback Brad Banks is starting to get some much deserved national recognition for his impressive play. He is the top-rated passer in the country with an efficiency rating of 167.8 and has thrown for 2,269 yards and 23 touchdown passes with just four interceptions. Last week against Northwestern, Banks completed all 10 of his passes for 197 yards and three touchdowns. For good measure, he added a pair of rushing touchdowns and 54 yards on the ground to earn his third Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week award this season. Junior Fred Russell topped the 1,000-yard mark a week ago and leads the Big Ten's No. 1 scoring team (38.4 PPG) with 1,025 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Maurice Brown is Iowa's leading receiver with 40 catches for 862 yards and nine touchdowns, but TE Dallas Clark is perhaps the best end in the country (36 catches for 612 yards and four touchdowns). Dallas and Banks continue to take the pressure off of other skill players with their outstanding play.
For all of the gaudy statistics, it is still the Iowa OL that is the heart of the team. Although the tailbacks have not been consistent in recent weeks, LT Robert Gallery, LG Eric Steinbach, C Bruce Nelson, RG Andy Lightfoot, top reserve Ben Sobieski, and RT David Porter have matched up very well against the various schemes from opposing defenses in the league. Teams have loaded the line of scrimmage against the OL by bringing safeties, but Iowa is still second in the conference in rushing (209.1 yards per game). Unlike Minnesota, Iowa offers great balance with their passing game (220.9 yards per game). Brad Banks has been able to take advantage against stacked run defenses by passing over them into single coverage, but the OL and Banks elusiveness has been the key as defenses have not been able to get to Banks. The Iowa OL is big enough and strong enough to play the most physical defensive fronts, but what separates the unit from so many other top lines is that they are athletic enough to match up with fast defenses.
Minnesota has improved tremendously up front from last season, but they struggled up front against Northwestern, Michigan, and Ohio State. The Gopher front seven is very small, but Bradley Vance is a very gifted linebacker. The key for Iowa is for the offense to convert first downs and keep the Gopher Defense on the field. If they can do that, they can wear Minnesota down just like Michigan did last week. Minnesota has to be worried since Michigan won the game in the trenches on both sides of the ball last week and Iowa abused Michigan in the trenches a few weeks ago.
Gopher special teams are special sometimes - Much like Iowa, Minnesota has very good statistics in the kicking and punt game. Preston Gruening led the Big Ten in punting a couple of years ago, and Dan Nystrom is 12-13 on field goals. However, in the big games in recent weeks, the punt protection and long snapping has been the biggest factor in Minnesota playing poorly. In addition, although Nystrom has been a good kicker so far this year much like his freshman season, the senior was very erratic the past two seasons.
On the Iowa side, Nate Kaeding has been the model of consistency the past two seasons. He is 19-20 on field goals this season, and his kickoffs have been outstanding. Iowa has scored every way possible on special teams this year, and this might be a major advantage for Iowa on Saturday. Look for the Hawks to go for blocks on both kicks and punts, and even if they come up short, they should win the field position game. The best thing the Gopher special teams have going for them is that they are good at blocking punts.