IOWA CITY, Ia. — The buildup to Saturday night’s sold-out football game between Iowa and Minnesota is great for the fans. It can be torture for the players.
“It’s just a long day,” Hawkeye defensive end Nate Meier said.
How Hawkeye players manage the wait until the 7:12 p.m. kickoff might be one of the biggest factors in whether they leave Kinnick Stadium with the first 10-0 start in school history.
That’s because in every other crucial category, Iowa holds the perceived advantage over the banged-up Golden Gophers.
The stats: Iowa ranks fourth in the Big Ten Conference in scoring offense; Minnesota is 14th. Iowa is fourth in scoring defense; Minnesota is ninth. The Hawkeyes’ No. 2 rushing offense is going against the Gophers’ No. 10 rushing defense. And it’ll be Minnesota’s No. 10-ranked offense vs. Iowa’s No. 3 defense.
Paper doesn’t always tell the whole story, but the imbalance is hard to avoid.
The momentum: As everyone even loosely associated with college football knows by now, the Hawkeyes (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) are undefeated. The Gophers have lost three in a row, all in different fashion — a humbling home blowout to Nebraska; a home heart-breaker to Michigan three days after coach Jerry Kill’s sudden retirement; and a grind-fest at Ohio State.
The injuries: Minnesota was (by far) a more trendy pick than Iowa to make noise in the Big Ten West, but injuries have sidetracked the Gophers. Twenty-two players on the two-deep, including 12 starters, have missed time this season for a total of 81 games lost to injury. The Gophers will be without three starting offensive linemen, both starting defensive tackles and four defensive backs — including top corner Jalen Myrick — against Iowa.
Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes might be entering this week as healthy as they’ve been since Week 1, with leading rusher Jordan Canzeri (ankle) returning to the lineup.
The intangibles: Iowa will play in front of what will be a charged-up crowd of 70,585 — with the morning’s “Grapple on the Gridiron” wrestling dual leading into the first November night football game in Kinnick Stadium history. On top of that, the Hawkeyes can tap into the revenge factor, too, after swallowing a 51-14 defeat at Minnesota one year ago and letting the Floyd of Rosedale trophy take residence up north. “We owe them one,” right tackle Cole Croston said this week.
“Just the fact it was a trophy game against a rival who we have history with,” defensive back Greg Mabin said, “that just made it even worse.”
Soak that all in. Everything — paper and otherwise — favors the Hawkeyes. But Iowa still needs to be Iowa, and the challenge this week in doing that is as much mental as physical.
Trying to maintain routine
One of the many reasons Iowa switched to a morning practice schedule and changed the mandatory off day from Mondays to Thursdays was to create more flexibility with various kickoff times, dictated mostly by TV, throughout the season. (Iowa thinks the schedule will help maintain routine in preparation for the Black Friday showdown at Nebraska in a few weeks, too.)
So, after Iowa won at Indiana, 35-27, last Saturday, coach Kirk Ferentz gave the guys 36 hours to celebrate — 12 more than usual — with the strategy of back-loading this important week. Instead of the usual Friday-night meetings, the players were scheduled to go to a movie together. The meetings this week were moved to late-morning Saturday.
But once those meetings end, the players will be on their own in their hotel rooms. What to do with that time?
Most said they’ll watch college football, something they normally don't get to do. But unlike when Iowa was 2-0 and players waited all day for the Sept. 19 home night game against Pittsburgh, the Hawkeyes are front and center in the national conversation after being ranked No. 5 Tuesday by the 12-person College Football Playoff committee.
So, players won’t be able to hit mute if they wanted to before hearing what those on ESPN or Fox or CBS are saying about them.
“You can’t listen to that. Obviously sometimes you don’t know when it’s coming, and it just happens,” junior quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “We know that we’ve still got three games left, and anything can happen in these next three games. We have to make sure we stay focused and not listen to the outside noise.”
Beathard said he’ll review the game plan and playbook on Saturday, too. Meier said he’ll try to take a nap. Senior center Austin Blythe, one of Iowa’s leading one-game-at-a-time enforcers, isn’t worried about the team getting off focus.
“At that point, you’re ready, you’re prepared. We’re off the (practice) field Wednesday at 10 o’clock, we’ve got everything in,” Blythe said. “At that point, it’s just polishing. And by the time Saturday afternoon comes around and we’re just sitting around — if you’re not prepared at that point you’re probably not prepared for 7 o’clock.”
Gophers arriving 'excited'
Under Kill and now Tracy Claeys — who was elevated to permanent head coach this week — the Gophers’ DNA doesn’t include giving up.
"Things are going their way,” Claeys said of the Hawkeyes, whose plus-10 turnover margin in conference games is twice as good any other Big Ten team. (Michigan State is plus-5.) “It will be a tremendous challenge. At the same time, being a trophy game, our kids will be excited. I expect us to play well.”
The Gophers were tied 0-0 with then-No. 1 Ohio State until a controversial defensive touchdown late in the second quarter. Even injured, they still play a physical brand of defense.
“A high effort group,” Blythe said. “Guys that get to the football and make tackles.”
Offensively, the Gophers are uncharacteristically having a tough time running the football. The Big Ten Network pointed out that Minnesota is passing on 50.6 percent of its plays in 2015, compared with 32.2 percent a year ago when David Cobb ran wild out of the backfield. The Gophers had just 33 yards on 26 rushing attempts in Columbus.
Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s standard strategy has been to force opponents to become one-dimensional — usually with focus on stopping the run first, knowing that Desmond King (nation-best eight interceptions) is just fine playing one-on-one in the secondary.
It wouldn’t be a shock if the Hawkeyes’ plan is to make quarterback Mitch Leidner (14-11 as a starter) throw more than he hands off in trying to become the first Gopher since Mike Hohensee in 1982 to throw for at least 250 yards in four consecutive games.
“Every defense has a weakness,” Claeys said. “If they give us the throws, we've got to take the throws they give us.”
That take-what-they-give-you approach can operate the Hawkeyes through unprecedented Saturday electricity, too.
If Iowa can be Iowa — limiting turnovers, creating offensive balance, blocking out the noise — then another week of unbeaten hype will be ahead: The 10-0 kind of hype.
“(Minnesota's) got good speed and everything,” Beathard said. “But I think if we go out and execute and prepare and stay focused during the game, we should be all right.”
Matchup: Iowa (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) vs. Minnesota (4-5, 1-4)
When, where: 7:12 p.m., Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City
TV: Big Ten Network (Announcers: Kevin Kugler, Matt Millen)
The line: Iowa is favored by 9.5
Tickets: The game is sold out (70,585).
The weather: Clear skies, no chance of rain. Temperature at kickoff in the high 40s.