Iowa defense desperately seeking turnovers faces Minnesota offense led by true freshman

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — A true freshman starting quarterback is like dangling red meat in front of an Iowa defense hungry for turnovers.

That’s the storyline Saturday when Minnesota (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten Conference) will send Zack Annexstad out for his fifth career start against a Hawkeye team playing its first road game. Kickoff is at 2:30 p.m. on BTN. The winner gets the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy and its first conference win.

Annexstad threw the first two interceptions of his career in his last game, a 42-13 loss at Maryland two weeks ago. He also lost a fumble and was sacked four times. It was a rough Big Ten debut for the Minnesota native.

“Zack wasn’t able to get out of the pocket with his ankle (injury),” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. “They knew that and they kept him in the pocket, and he had no place to escape or step up.”

Iowa safety Jake Gervase (right), tackling a Wisconsin receiver Sept. 22, knows his defense has excelled in certain statistical areas. But generating turnovers is not one of them. The Hawkeyes look to add to their interception total of two when they face Minnesota freshman quarterback Zack Annexstad on Saturday.

That’s one plan of attack for Iowa (3-1, 0-1). The Hawkeyes are rotating eight defensive linemen in an effort to keep their motors high, and they have responded with 11 sacks and a pair of fumbles. The Gophers started five freshmen on offense against Maryland, including right guard Blaise Andries. That’s a matchup the Hawkeyes should win.

Gophers force-feed wide receivers; Hawkeyes in search of interceptions

When Annexstad has time to throw, there’s no mystery where he’s aiming. The Gophers have completed 61 passes; 57 have gone to wide receivers. That’s 93.4 percent. No team in America has been more intent on force-feeding its wideouts.

But Iowa, a year after leading the nation with 21 interceptions, has generated just two so far. Losing Josh Jackson to the NFL is a big part of that. Michael Ojemudia has the lone interception from a Hawkeye cornerback this year, and that was on a pass by Northern Iowa’s Colton Howell that was essentially a Hail Mary. Safety Amani Hooker has the other Iowa pick.

Ojemudia, a junior, figures to start again Saturday. The status of his counterpart, sophomore Matt Hankins, is less clear. He was injured in the second half of Iowa’s loss to Wisconsin on Sept. 22 and was limited in practice this week. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker said Wednesday that he thinks Hankins will play, but he wasn’t sure how much. That would elevate a trio of freshmen — Julius Brents, Josh Turner and Riley Moss.

Minnesota quarterback Zack Annexstad protects the football under pressure from Maryland defensive lineman Jesse Aniebonam on Sept. 22. The Gophers' freshman was sacked four times, intercepted twice and lost one fumble in a 42-13 loss.

They will be challenged with defending Minnesota’s most talented position group — wide receivers Tyler Johnson (22 catches), Rashod Bateman (20) and Chris Autman-Bell (11). The latter two are true freshmen.

“He knows enough to throw. That's one thing he knows. He may not be experienced enough, but he knows that much,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of Annexstad, who is 58-for-111 for 706 yards and five touchdowns.

“He throws it down both sidelines. … They do a nice job of throwing deep balls.”

Senior safety Jake Gervase said the Hawkeyes are pleased with their points allowed (13 per game, tied for fifth in the nation) and third-down defense (37 percent, to rank 57th). But there’s a growing sense that the defense needs to start making game-changing plays.

“We just need to do a better job of taking advantage of those opportunities, when the ball’s up in the air that we go get it. And then gang-tackling, and if you’re the second and third guy in on the running back, trying to rip that ball out and forcing a fumble,” said Gervase, who has 20 tackles and one forced fumble.

Annexstad may give Iowa that chance.

“He’s not afraid to take his shots,” Gervase observed. “But at the same time, he doesn’t force the issue.”

Gophers have controlled the clock; Hawkeyes have controlled the line

Minnesota lost star running back Rodney Smith to injury in Week 2, but has still found ways to move the ball on the ground. Freshman Mohamed Ibrahim has rushed for 199 yards the past two weeks. The Gophers rank second in the Big Ten with an average time of possession of 34 minutes, 48 seconds.

But they haven’t seen a defense like Iowa’s yet.

“They keep everything in front of you,” Fleck said. “They’ve got big, long, tall, rangy, strong defensive linemen, active linebackers, and they tackle probably better than any team I’ve watched.”

Iowa has long been known for playing technically sound defense. The goal now is to move beyond that and start handing the offense the ball in enemy territory.

That means turnovers.

Gervase offered one reason those may be harder to come by this season.

“Our defensive line is doing such a good job of getting home so fast that quarterbacks and offenses in general are probably shifting their focus, trying to get the ball out quicker, not taking near as many vertical threats as we’ve seen in the past,” Gervase said.

That won’t be the case Saturday, however. Annexstad is a rookie who likes to chuck it. The Hawkeyes must make him pay.


Iowa (3-1, 0-1) at Minnesota (3-1, 0-1)

Where: TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis

Kickoff: 2:30 p.m Saturday

TV: Big Ten Network (Brandon Gaudin, Glen Mason, Elise Menaker)

Line: Hawkeyes by 7

Weather: Cloudy, 49 degrees, winds from north-northwest at 9 mph