By Sam Frye Kienzle
The Iowa Hawkeyes enter TCF Bank Stadium Saturday to play what will be their last overmatched, inferior opponent of the year: Minnesota. The Hawkeyes have already played two of the Big Ten’s worst teams in Indiana and a disappointing Northwestern, and tomorrow’s game against the gilded Gophers concludes a three-game schedule of opponents that boast a combined record of 4-18 as of Friday, October 28th.
After Saturday’s game against the Gophers, the Hawkeyes’ schedule is so hauntingly about-face that Iowa must show it can go on the road and explode the Gophers into an even finer debris than what they currently resemble.
The Gophers punched the Hawkeyes in the xiphoid process last year, sending them to the mat in wincing agony during a 27-24 win at frozen TCF Bank Stadium. Behind a reinvigorated rushing attack, some on-side kicking trickery, and a desperate senior quarterback in Adam Weber, the Gophers gave Iowa one of their most dispiriting losses in coach Kirk Ferentz’s tenure—and a third straight loss to end the 2010 season. The Gophers were bad last year when they faced Iowa, 2-9 entering the game. They had fired hot-breath head coach Tim Brewster earlier in the season and were playing under interim coach Jeff Horton. The loss at Minnesota sent Iowa to 7-5 and its fans to a permanent frown face until an upset of Missouri in the Insight Bowl.
Following the 2010 season, Minnesota hired former Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois head coach Jerry Kill. Kill has a reputation as a program builder, getting Southern Illinois to the FCS playoffs and Northern Illinois to bowl games before being hired by Minnesota. After an opening day 19-17 loss to Southern California that raised a positive brow amongst the disillusioned and salty Minnesota faithful, the Gophers have become the exploded debris of a once-proud rushing team under former head coach Glen Mason.
“We’re building a program,” said Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, quoted in an article on hawkcentral.com. “I’ve said all along this is not going to happen overnight.”
Nobody in Gopherdom believed Kill would take over and succeed immediately, like Les Miles at LSU or Urban Meyer at Florida. The expectations and pressure at those schools are completely different. Even the with the relaxed expectations, the play on the field has been a force to turn one’s head. After the encouraging 19-17 loss to USC, the Gophers have lost to New Mexico State (before this season, New Mexico State was a perennial loser of the FBS), North Dakota State of the FCS (the littler guy division, and Minnesota lost to them by almost two touchdowns), and blowout losses in all three of their Big Ten games thus far (including a nauseating 58-0 loss at Michigan).
It hasn’t just been the futile in-game action that has been angering, sickening, and disquieting. Things have gone into crisis mode—like Homer Simpson’s reaction to lights flashing and horns blaring upon imminent nuclear meltdown. Consider:
At the end of the New Mexico State game, with Minnesota trailing 28-21 and eying a 4th-and-forever last-gasp desperation play on offense, coach Kill suffered a disturbing and concerning seizure on the sidelines. This reporter actually witnessed it firsthand on television (no clips of the seizure have been played on television out of respect for Kill, and rightfully so). The camera was on Kill for two or three seconds and showed him flailing around violently, his headset around his face and one of his arms sticking straight up by his head, seemingly frozen. I had never seen anything like it at a sporting event, and it bothered me as well as everyone else at TCF Bank Stadium. Obviously, with Kill’s health concerns (after undergoing cancer treatment, Kill has had recurrent seizure problems) and the play on the field, morale is low and uncertainty is high among those associated with Gopher football.
Statistically, Minnesota has one of the worst offensive and defensive units in FBS. Their 17.4 points per game is 110th nationally, and their defense gives up an average of 35.9 points per game (114th nationally). In Big Ten action, the Gophers have given up at last 41 points in each game.
Marqueis Gray, Minnesota’s quarterback, is completing almost 49% of his passes with 3 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. He may be best fit as a runner, accumulating 438 yards on the year with 2 touchdowns, both coming in losses to Purdue and Nebraska, respectively. Minnesota as a rushing team averages 142.9 yards per game, which is 72nd nationally and unequivocally their brightest aspect on offense. Duane Bennett is second on the team in rushing (to Gray) with 305 yards. Da’Jon McKnight leads the team in receiving with 393 yards and 1 touchdown.
Iowa’s defensive line is winning battles of technique at this point, even against the worst of the Big Ten. They are not winning the battles of strength, size or power. Unfortunately, with most of the snaps Iowa’s defensive line takes on, they get beat by the bigger and the better. That’s just the reality at this point; with an undersized and banged-up defensive line of already questionable talent and athleticism. Against Minnesota, I expect to see Marqueis Gray get a few nice runs and Duane Bennett to get 80-100 yards on the ground. Minnesota will put together two or three long drives, but the Iowa offense will take advantage of every opportunity (likely losing the time of possession contest yet again). Marcus Coker will notch another 100-yard game and step aside for Iowa’s freshman backups to get carries.
With Keenan Davis questionable for the game, I see Marvin McNutt, Zach Derby, and Kevonte Martin-Manley making catches for long gains against a Minnesota secondary that is—by Jove—worse than Iowa’s! There will be no repeat of last year’s fall-down-go-boom. The air will be warmer (the game is being played about a month earlier this year), so Broderick Binns’ long arms will function as need be. Iowa will cruise before the schedule turns ghoulish the rest of the way.
Iowa 48, Minnesota 20