One of Matt Limegrover’s worst days as Gophers offensive coordinator came against Iowa two years ago, when a disciplined Hawkeyes defense held Minnesota to 30 rushing yards and seven points.
Limegrover later admitted he had been too stubborn, trying to pound the ball between the tackles. He loosened the playbook last year against Iowa and had one of his best days on the job, as the Gophers responded with 291 rushing yards and 51 points.
Now, the Gophers are preparing to face Iowa again Saturday night, and it’s another daunting equation. Limegrover will need a sound strategy — and perhaps a magic wand. The undefeated Hawkeyes rank eighth nationally in scoring defense (16.6 points allowed per game), and their strength is defending the run.
With David Cobb in the NFL, and their offensive line decimated because of injuries, the Gophers have been inconsistent rushing all season. Last week, they had 33 rushing yards against Ohio State, their lowest total since that Iowa game two years ago.
“Teams are still under the thought process that they’re not going to let us run the football,” Limegrover said Tuesday. “They’re going to get one more in the box than we have. They’re going to keep daring us to throw the football. Each and every week we get more comfortable with that facet of things.”
The story has changed. The Gophers had one of the Big Ten’s worst passing offenses last year but averaged 215 rushing yards per game. Now, they rank second-to-last in the conference in rushing (141.6), and quarterback Mitch Leidner has passed for at least 280 yards in each of the past three games.
The Gophers had many stubborn moments against Ohio State, as they kept running up the middle — for one or two yards. After falling behind by 21 points, they unleashed Leidner, who passed for 195 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Limegrover said the team has reached a point at times where the short passing game is as effective as the running game.
“A 5-yard gain is a 5-yard gain,” he said. “One coach on offense constantly reminds me, ‘You never go broke taking a profit.’ ”
The Gophers have had to adjust, in part, because of injuries.
Three starting offensive linemen — Josh Campion, Ben Lauer and Brian Bobek — each have missed at least four games. All three were out last week at Ohio State, and there are no indications any of them will return this week.
Freshmen tailbacks Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks have both shown promise. But Smith sprained an ankle at Ohio State, and Brooks suffered a shoulder injury. Both had been nicked up for previous games, too. Claeys said he’s not sure if they’ll be back for the Iowa game.
If they can’t go, the Gophers will turn to senior Rodrick Williams, who came off the bench last week and gained 44 yards on two receptions. He had just as much trouble rushing, however, averaging 1.8 yards on five carries.
Cobb was a 5-11, 230-pound force last season when he set school records for rushing attempts (314) and rushing yards (1,626). He was well-equipped to handle the pounding of a Big Ten season as a senior.
Smith is 5-11 and 200 pounds. Brooks is 6-0, 206. Both likely will add size and strength as their college careers continue. For now, durability is a concern.
“It’s always a challenge,” Limegrover said. “In our offense you’re going to get carries, but you’re also going to take hits. [Running backs coach Pat] Poore has really tried to make sure he hasn’t overburdened one over the other.”
Iowa ranks ninth nationally in rushing defense (101.4 yards per game). The Hawkeyes held Wisconsin to 86 yards rushing and Northwestern to 51 before giving up 227 to Indiana last week.
“Right now, their kids are very confident,” Claeys said of the Hawkeyes. “We have to find a way to do better than what we did last week against Ohio State, for sure. That will help out Mitch also. But it is a challenge with how well they’re playing versus the run.”