Hawkeye defense welcomes chance to stifle high-flying Minnesota offense
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Minnesota scored 31 points against Iowa last season, scoring three touchdowns through the air.
And that Golden Gopher passing attack is even better this year.
“They’ve definitely got a talented receiving corps,” Hawkeye safety Geno Stone said this week. “More talented than I thought they were.”
The Hawkeyes won that game in Minneapolis 48-31 last October. But Iowa has scored only 37 points total this fall against three ranked Big Ten Conference teams. So an encore seems unlikely.
That means Iowa’s pass defense will need to be at its best when the teams meet at 3 p.m. Saturday in Kinnick Stadium. The Floyd of Rosedale trophy that Iowa has owned for four straight years is once again at stake.
But the No. 7 Gophers (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten) have much bigger goals — and appear to have the offense to reach them. Minnesota would all but clinch the Big Ten West with a win over No. 22 Iowa (6-3, 3-3). The Gophers would stay in the hunt for a first Rose Bowl appearance since 1962. They would remain in the conversation for the College Football Playoff.
“I just think they’re playing with a lot more confidence,” Iowa linebacker Djimon Colbert said of the Gophers. “They know they can go out there and get the job done when they want to. So we’ve got to go out there and take that away from them early in the game.”
Minnesota has scored at least 28 points in all nine games this season. Its offense is impressively balanced: third in the Big Ten with 195 rushing yards per game, sixth with an average of 238 passing yards.
Hidden in that passing total is the most impressive statistic of all: Minnesota, led by sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan, is averaging 11 yards per pass attempt. Ohio State is next among Big Ten teams, at 8.8.
It’s no wonder Hawkeye defensive players were comparing Minnesota to Penn State this week. The Nittany Lions’ offense is just a step below the Gophers. Iowa fell at home 17-12 to Penn State in October. Minnesota upset the Nittany Lions 31-26 last Saturday.
Rodney Smith is Minnesota’s lead running back. He has 940 yards and seven rushing touchdowns this season. Mohamed Ibrahim has another 340 yards with six scores. Shannon Brooks has picked up 319 yards in only six games.
“I just think their backs run differently than they did last year,” Colbert said. “They run with a lot more toughness and physicalness. You’ve got to respect them for it.”
But it’s Morgan who has been making Minnesota’s offense hum. He forces defenses to make decisions on his run-pass options and has been making enough correct reads to throw for 2,100 yards, 21 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He has a terrific trio of receivers who are adept at taking intermediate slant passes and turning them into big gains.
Tyler Johnson has 50 catches and eight touchdowns. Rashod Bateman has gained 847 yards on his 38 receptions (22.3 per catch) and added another seven touchdowns. Chris Autman-Bell has grabbed 20 passes and found the end zone with five of them. All three receivers played against Iowa last year, when Zack Annexstad was under center. Annexstad was intercepted three times in that game.
Morgan has not been turnover-prone.
“Not only is he being productive, but he's being smart with what he's doing,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of Morgan. “He's a young player, but he's not playing like a young player, and that's really impressive.”
Iowa is coming off a game in which it surrendered 474 yards in a 24-22 loss at Wisconsin. That was humbling for a defense that has been among the nation’s best, allowing only 11.7 points per game. The Badgers put up 300 yards on the ground but weren’t much of a threat through the air.
The Hawkeyes' defense is eager to regain its swagger against the best offense it will see this year. Look for Iowa to employ true freshman safety Dane Belton as the “cash” in a 4-2-5 alignment extensively. The Hawkeyes know they can’t give up big plays if they expect to beat Minnesota.
“It’s going to come down to how disciplined we all play, especially on the back side,” said Stone, who has one of Iowa’s seven interceptions this season, a number he is eager to improve.
“I love the competition. … I’m definitely up for what they’re bringing. I’m ready for this game.”
Reilly family will serve as honorary captain
Former Hawkeye football star Mike Reilly, who died Oct. 18 at age 77, will be represented by his three sons as honorary captain for the Minnesota game.
Jim, Steve and Bob Reilly are all Iowa graduates.
Mike Reilly, a Dubuque native, earned All-America honors in a Hawkeye career that ended in 1963. He played guard and linebacker. He was chosen by the Chicago Bears in the fourth round of the 1964 NFL draft, playing five seasons there before finishing up with the Minnesota Vikings.
After his playing career, Reilly returned to banking in Dubuque and was part of WMT radio broadcasts of Iowa football games for 17 years.
No. 7 MINNESOTA (9-0, 6-0) at No. 22 IOWA (6-3, 3-3)
When: 3:05 p.m. Saturday
Where: Kinnick Stadium
TV: Fox (Joe Davis, Brock Huard, Bruce Feldman)
Line: Hawkeyes by 3
Weather: 38 degrees and mostly cloudy; 5% chance of rain; winds from south-southeast at 11 mph
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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