Barely hanging on in the national rankings, the Iowa Hawkeyes get ready to close out the regular season on Saturday as the 24th-ranked squad pays a visit to the Minnesota Golden Gophers for a Big Ten Conference clash at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Iowa was a dominant program during the first half of the 2010 campaign, but then a one-point loss to Wisconsin exposed some cracks in the armor. After a couple of victories against Michigan State and Indiana, the Hawkeyes fell back into the loss column in a couple of close calls. First there was the 21-17 setback at Northwestern, and last weekend the team failed to take down Ohio State before the Buckeyes could escape with a 20-17 win at home.
"The biggest positive for us will be having a chance to come out with eight wins," head coach Kirk Ferentz said of the disappointing setback against OSU. "It will take a little while; this one stings."
At this stage Iowa is 7-4 overall and 4-3 in conference play, which means they'll be accepting a bid to something less prestigious than a BCS matchup.
As for the Golden Gophers, they've won a total of just two games in 11 tries, the first of those coming against Middle Tennessee on the road in the season opener, 24-17. After that the program experienced a nine-game slide that finally came to an end on November 13th in a 38-34 win over Illinois.
With respect to an all-time series between these two Big Ten programs, Minnesota leads by a count of 59-42-2.
A one-yard TD run by Marcus Coker early in the fourth quarter put the Hawkeyes ahead by seven points against Ohio State last week, but then the offense went cold for the hosts and the defense allowed the Buckeyes to put together scoring drives of 11 and 12 plays to regain the lead and hold on for the victory. Coker finished with 70 yards for the Hawkeyes on the ground, while Ricky Stanzi made good on 20-of-31 passes for 195 yards and a score in the losing cause.
From a defensive standpoint, Iowa didn't allow OSU QB Terrelle Pryor to have his way, in fact the Hawkeyes limited Pryor to less than 300 total yards and intercepted him once in the close call. Shaun Prater had one of those picks and also broke up two passes. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn posted seven stops but only one quarterback hurry as the Hawkeyes did have some trouble catching up with Pryor in the pocket. aside from the one sack by lineman Christian Ballard.
"When you have an athlete like Terelle Pryor, you have to get after him," Ballard said after the game. "He's a playmaker and he made some plays when they counted."
Clayborn, a starter in 35 games in his career, is one of four finalists for the Rotary Lombardi Award and is also a semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award this year, even though his stats are far from overwhelming. As far as the overall defense is concerned, Iowa is sixth in the nation in stopping the run (93.3 ypg) and sixth in scoring defense (15.5 ppg), even though the group is 110th in TFLs (4.45 per game).
Offensively it is all about Stanzi who is first in the conference and sixth in the nation in passing efficiency with a rating of 163.17. The QB, who is one of five finalists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, has thrown at least one TD in every game this season and has just four picks on 302 attempts. So, while he doesn't take the spotlight every weekend for the Hawkeyes, he's also never in the doghouse either.
In Adam Weber the Golden Gophers have one of the most experienced quarterbacks in college football right now. Heading into the 50th game of his career, Weber has already passed for close to 11,000 yards and 72 touchdowns, but he doesn't get too much attention around the nation because Minnesota is struggling so much. He also doesn't appear in too many highlights this season because he has nine interceptions, against just 20 TDs.
Ranked 10th in the conference and 90th nationally, the rushing attack for the Gophers is fairly innocuous with just 127.9 ypg, so it is up to Weber to do as much damage as he can when he settles into the pocket.
The defense for the Golden Gophers has been simply brutal this season. Outside of the 17 points allowed to Middle Tennessee in the opener, no opponent has scored less than four touchdowns versus Minnesota this year. As a result, the scoring defense is 101st in the country with 33.8 ppg allowed. The run defense has given up 200.6 ypg and while that might not be a mode of attack for the Hawkeyes necessarily, the visitors could make schemes to exploit that deficiency anyway.
Given that Minnesota is 119th in the country in sacks entering this week, Stanzi should have plenty of time to hang out in the pocket and pick out his receivers as the Hawkeyes pick up their eighth win of the campaign.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Iowa 35, Minnesota 14