This being a rivalry week, P.J. Fleck didn’t want it to come off as an insult.
“They do what they do,’’ the Gophers coach said Tuesday of the Iowa Hawkeyes, adding “respectful’’ and “compliment’’ as qualifiers. “And they do what they do very well — probably better than any other team I’ve ever watched in terms of, they are who they are.’’
Who these Hawkeyes are is who they’ve usually been for the better part of four decades — a solid, no-frills team that wins on the strength of defense. This year, Iowa is particularly stout against the run, allowing 84 rushing yards per game, a figure that is tied for fourth-best nationally.
One of the Gophers’ missions Saturday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium in the battle for the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy is to get their running game going. Minnesota (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten) averaged 181.7 rushing yards per game during a 3-0 nonconference start but was held to 94 yards on 40 carries in the 42-13 loss to Maryland in the Big Ten opener.
“Iowa is going to do what they do. And we’ve got to do what we do better,’’ Gophers senior center Jared Weyler said, echoing his coach. “We run the ball a lot, and we’ve got to establish a physical presence.’’
That will be easier said than done against Iowa’s defense, especially its front four. The quartet of ends Anthony Nelson (6-7, 271 pounds) and Parker Hesse (6-3, 261) and tackles Sam Brincks (6-5, 275) and Matt Nelson (6-8, 295) are a formidable wall. Throw in end A.J. Epenesa, a 6-5, 277-pounder who rotates in and is tied for the Big Ten sacks lead with four, and the Hawkeyes (3-1, 0-1) are stocked.
“They’ve got big, long, tall, rangy defensive linemen, active linebackers,’’ Fleck said, “and they tackle better than probably any team I’ve watched.’’
Added Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, “For us to have depth at any position is really rare. Nice to have that, at least with the defensive line.’’
Because of injuries, the Gophers have redshirt freshman Mohamed Ibrahim and true freshman Bryce Williams carrying the load. Against Maryland, Ibrahim rushed 26 times for 95 yards, while Williams ran seven times for 24 yards.
It wasn’t that the Gophers couldn’t run the ball against the Terrapins — throw out four sacks of 34 yards in rushing losses, and they had 136 yards on 36 carries (3.8 yards per carry) — it’s that they fell short in key moments.
Trailing 14-0, the Gophers reached Terrapins territory, but runs of 1 yard by Williams and no gain by Ibrahim helped scuttle a drive that ended with only a field goal.
The next two drives in the second quarter reached Maryland’s side of the field, but three more carries netted 9 yards and the Gophers didn’t score. In the second half, the Gophers ran the ball 17 times (not counting two sacks) but had only four carries of more than 4 yards.
The bye week gave the Gophers a chance to correct mistakes, according to Weyler.
“Especially as an offensive line, we’ve got to be able to get back to the fundamentals, get back to the basics,’’ he said. “… I thought we got a lot better last week.’’
The test of how much better will come Saturday against that Iowa defense.