Can Iowa's defense contain Minnesota's Mo Ibrahim? Let's look at Saturday's key matchup.

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

One week after holding one of the Big Ten's most prolific passers, Purdue's Aidan O'Connell, to nearly half of his usual per-game statistics, the Iowa defense put forth an equally impressive effort in run defense against Wisconsin. The Hawkeye unit held running back Braelon Allen, the fourth-leading rusher in the conference, to just 40 rushing yards (on 17 carries) last Saturday and held Wisconsin's offense to just 51 rushing yards total.

Defending the run is a central goal to any defense, and Iowa ranks eighth nationally in that metric (88.6 yards per game). What's most impressive about that stat is that Iowa has faced the gauntlet of Big Ten running backs. So far they've faced four of the top six rushers in the conference; highlighted by Allen, Chase Brown of Illinois (the nation's leading rusher) and Heisman Trophy candidate Blake Corum of Michigan. This Saturday's game against Minnesota (3 p.m. on Fox) is perhaps the biggest challenge yet.

Iowa's top priority is limiting Golden Gophers running back Mo Ibrahim. The sixth-year senior holds one of the most impressive streaks in college football with 18 consecutive starts with 100-plus rushing yards, the longest streak since 2000. His 1,261 yards (second in Big Ten) and 18 touchdowns (first in Big Ten) pace the conference, and he's done it in one less game than any other running back in the top five.

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"He's a very good and patient runner," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "The ability he has to put his foot in the ground and go vertical is as good as anybody that we faced."

Head coach Kirk Ferentz pointed to another factor that's going to be key: getting Ibrahim on the ground as quickly as possible. Nearly 70% of his 1,261 rushing yards have come after contact (861), the most of any Power 5 player. It's also worth noting that Ibrahim's responsibility has grown over the last month. Since Minnesota starting quarterback Tanner Morgan suffered a concussion on Oct. 15 at Illinois, Ibrahim has logged 30-plus carries in each subsequent game, meaning the Hawkeyes will not only have to tackle well but do it consistently throughout the game.

"You have to defend him every play and until the whistle blows," Ferentz said. "He's just tough, hard nosed ... I'm not saying the same as (Blake Corum), but there's some similarities to me. Looks like maybe there's nothing there and next thing you know he's got a 5-, 8-yard gain. If you don't tackle him and get him down, he's not quitting."

The Hawkeyes' rushing defense has steadily improved in recent weeks. After allowing 133 yards on 29 carries to Corum and 146 yards on 31 carries to Brown, they've shut down Ohio State's duo of Treveyon Henderson and Miyan Williams (57 yards combined) and the aforementioned performance against Allen. Over the last four weeks, Iowa has allowed just 55.5 rushing yards per game. Defensive tackle Logan Lee stated that the turnaround has been player-driven.

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"It's just guys executing their job in a better manner," Lee said. "We've been able to play at a higher level for our own individual positions the past few weeks. The game plan was always there for the past games, but we did not do a good enough job executing that game plan. So ultimately the coaches can do all they can but it comes down to us being able to execute."

Over the last four games, Iowa's defense is allowing 55.5 rushing yards per game.

Iowa is aiming to duplicate the game plan that was successful against Wisconsin: stop the run and make the opposing quarterback win the game. In order to do that, the defense must do what many teams haven't done against Minnesota this year: Get them into third-and-long situations.

The Gophers are the best third-down offense in the Big Ten (55.6%) but have the 10th fewest attempts (126), signifying that they're rarely in those situations because of success on first and second downs. And when they are in third downs, it's often a short-yardage situation. Minnesota's quarterback situation is still fluid but it will likely be redshirt freshman Athan Kaliakmanis, a promising yet erratic prospect who is completing only 46% of his passes. Can Iowa limit Ibrahim on early downs, then go after a young quarterback on third down? That's been one of the biggest challenges in practice this week.

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"They have a system in which they don't get into many long third downs," Parker said. "They want to run the ball and control it with a lot of (run-pass option) stuff. So you really got to do well on first and second down. It's definitely going to be a challenge because of how big they are up front with the offensive line (average height/weight is 6-foot-5, 318 pounds). They're big. They've always been big, that's how they like it. And then they also have two big tight ends that also get in there."

Iowa's rushing defense ranks 8th nationally, allowing 88.6 rushing yards per game.

Ibrahim's skillset at running back is paired with an offensive line that has performed above expectations this season. One year removed from losing four starters, the Gophers hold the second-highest graded offensive line in the country according to Pro Football Focus (90.4 grade). The responsibility in stopping the run begins up front with Iowa's defensive line, a group that's steadily emerged as the season's progressed. On Wednesday, Parker noted that the depth of the line is one of the key reasons for the defense's success this year. A deep rotation could be the key on Saturday. Keeping fresh bodies in the game will give Iowa a strong chance on each play at the point of attack.

"When they're fresh, they can be a little bit more focused on the fundamentals," Parker said. "I think if you've got good fundamentals and you play square and I think they do a good job with their hands ... the better chance you've got to be to be successful."

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Parker's 2022 defense is one of the best in school history. Iowa continues to fall back on one staple: strong preparation. Parker noted on Wednesday that he felt good about the three days of practice the defense put forth, and that bodes well for Saturday.

There won't be anything elaborate or different in stopping Ibrahim, said Lee. It's a matter of maintaining their standard.

"It's been a grind the whole time (facing strong running backs)," Lee said. "So the preparation is not going to change a whole lot. Just get to the ball and get as many hats on the ball as possible."