Iowa defense looking to make big plays against Minnesota

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Minnesota won its first Big Ten Conference football game of the season last Saturday while completing only five passes.

The Gophers are defiantly one-dimensional. They have three tailbacks and a quarterback who want to run first, second and third.

Sometimes, the key to a football game is patently obvious. And it certainly is for the Iowa defense heading into Saturday’s 5:30 p.m. home game against Minnesota (FS1).

“They take pride in how they run the ball, and they’re good at it,” Hawkeyes defensive end Parker Hesse said. “That’s a strength and we’re going to want to try to eliminate that as soon as possible.”

The battle of two teams with identical 4-3 records, each having defeated Illinois for its lone league win, will be played in near-freezing temperatures, the first cold-weather game of the year for Iowa.

Iowa senior linebacker Josey Jewell watches for the play against Iowa State on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa.

And that means a Hawkeye defense that has played well enough to win in most games this fall must become something more — dominant.

“You’ve got to get turnovers. That’s a big part of football,” Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson said. “If your defense can create turnovers and if your offense can get field position, it takes a lot of stress off of them.”

The Hawkeyes will be helped by the expected return of star middle linebacker Josey Jewell. The senior missed last Saturday’s 17-10 overtime loss at Northwestern with a shoulder injury. Iowa limited the Wildcats to 3.2 yards per rush in that game, but didn’t generate a turnover, while its offense foundered in the second half.

Jewell leads Iowa with 9.5 tackles for loss. He has four passes broken up, one interception, one forced fumble and one recovered. He brings an aggressive style to the field that permeates the defense.

Minnesota, meanwhile, has turned to sophomore quarterback Demry Croft, who completed just 5-of-15 passes for 47 yards while the Gophers bullied Illinois for 292 rushing yards in a 24-17 home win. Croft also threw two interceptions.

This is the hope for Iowa’s defense. If the Hawkeyes can stop the tailback trio of Rodney Smith (545 yards), Shannon Brooks (329) and Kobe McCrary (268) in its tracks and force Croft to throw, they will have the chance to make game-changing plays.

“It’s not so much taking more chances, it’s being in the right place at the right time. We had times where the ball was in our hands last week and we didn’t execute,” Iowa linebacker Bo Bower said of a defense that has forced only 11 turnovers all season.

“The key is you practice all week, you know certain schemes that guys are going to do when you see a certain formation or someone’s running a certain route. If it’s hitting somebody in a certain spot to try to get the ball out, or using your hands. It’s different things in certain situations that might arise. But when the ball is in your hands, it’s got to be a turnover.”

Emotions will be running higher because it’s a rivalry game being played under the lights. The Floyd of Rosedale bronze pig is at stake for the 82nd time. The Hawkeyes have held it the past two years.

First-year Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, an Illinois native, said this week that he’s well-versed in the pig’s significance.

“There is more emphasis when it becomes a big rivalry in terms of what a rivalry means, what are you playing for? What does the trophy mean? What does this mean to former Gophers and former Hawkeyes? The current Gophers and Hawkeyes? And the future Gophers and Hawkeyes?” Fleck said. “So there’s a lot more riding on it.”

Oct 21, 2017; Evanston, IL, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz talks with his team during the first quarter against Northwestern at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The stakes become even higher for seniors like Hawkeye linebacker Ben Niemann.

“It’s not ours right now, so we have to go out and earn it,” he said of Floyd, which was relocated to Iowa’s weight room earlier in the week before being packed up and hidden from view until the fourth quarter Saturday.

“It’s a trophy, it’s a bordering state, it’s kind of like marking our territory, I guess.”

But before Iowa’s defense can get its hands on the pig, it needs to get its hands on the pigskin.

“It’s foolish to think that you’ve ever done enough when the job wasn’t done, because there were plays out there that we know we can make and we should have made,” Hesse said of Iowa’s narrow losses.

“We can disrupt games more than we did (last) Saturday, more than we have all year.”

Minnesota (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten) at Iowa (4-3, 1-3)

WHERE: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

TIME/TV: 5:35 p.m., FS1 (announcers: Joe Davis, Brady Quinn, Bruce Feldman)

LINE: Hawkeyes by 6½

WEATHER: 44 degrees and cloudy with temperatures dropping toward mid-20s; winds from northwest at 10-20 mph