Preview: Gophers face prime chance for first win at Iowa since 1999
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Who: Minnesota Gophers (4-0) at Iowa Hawkeyes (2-2)
When: 11 a.m.. Saturday.
Where: Kinnick Stadium (capacity: 70,585), Iowa City, Iowa.
TV: ESPN 2
Line: Iowa by 7.
Coaches: Gophers -- Jerry Kill (2nd season, 7-9). Iowa - Kirk Ferentz (14th season, 98-68).
Series: Gophers lead 61-42-2.
Last meeting: Highlights were hard to come by in Kill's first season, but the Gophers did pull off a 22-21 upset of their border rival to keep the Floyd of Rosedale trophy in the Twin Cities for a second straight year. Iowa led 21-10 with less than 14 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. That was before a methodical 11-play touchdown drive and a successful onsides kick set the Gophers up for another long drive and the eventual game-winning touchdown.
Last week: What was thought might be an offensive showcase turned into a defensive standoff as the Gophers derailed Syracuse, 17-10, at TCF Bank Stadium. With the victory, the Gophers' surprising start continued to build momentum, moving to 4-0 for the first time in four years. Iowa hasn't channeled nearly the same good feelings about the season's first four weeks. Central Michigan scored nine points in the final 45 seconds to come from behind last Saturday to drop the Hawkeyes to 2-2 with a 32-31 defeat in Iowa City.
At stake: Big Ten season is here and with its arrival comes a chance for the Gophers to show whether or not their undefeated start is legitimate. The Gophers may be entering as the underdog, but the confidence level within the program is rising fast. For almost a decade, Iowa had the upper hand in the annual rivalry. However, consecutive victories by the Gophers could be early signs that an abrupt role reversal is underway. The Hawkeyes are in desperate need of a win to stabilize their season after a rocky nonconference slate.
Gophers: QB MarQueis Gray will miss his second straight game with a sprained left knee and ankle. Gray has not practiced since the injury occurred on Sept. 15 against Western Michigan, apart from minor workouts with team trainers. LG Tommy Olson has been ruled out as he still recovering from tweaking one of his ankles last Saturday in the Gophers' victory over Syracuse. Redshirt freshman Jon Christenson has shifted from his backup role at C to fill the vacancy at LG. An ankle injury sidelined C Zach Mottla for back-to-back games, but he has returned to practice and is projected to be ready for Saturday. Redshirt sophomore Zac Epping will start again at C, with Mottla situated as the primary backup. RT Foster Bush was listed as "out" on the Gophers' weekly injury report on Thursday with an undisclosed injury. Redshirt freshman Ernie Heifort replaced Bush as the backup to starting RT Josh Campion on the 'U' depth chart. WR Brock Vereen is questionable with an unspecified injury. CB Martez Shabazz is out for a second week with a dislocated right toe. WR Andre McDonald was not included on the injury report, but his status for Saturday is unknown. McDonald was back at practice on Thursday after being kept out for a week following a procedure to address what was reported as a minor heart issue. WR Jamel Harbison is sidelined for the season as he rehabs from a torn right ACL.
Iowa: RB Damon Bullock suffered a concussion on Sept. 15 against Northern Iowa and missed last week's match-up with Central Michigan. Bullock is considered questionable to play Saturday. TB Greg Garmon was also sidelined last week with an injured right elbow, but is expected to be available. RB Barkley Hill and DB Ruben Lile are both out for the season with knee injuries.
Three things to watch for
Hostile territory: Iowa has not lost three consecutive games at Kinnick Stadium since Ferentz's first season on the job in 1999 -- the same year as the Gophers' last victory in Iowa City. It probably wasn't in Gophers' best interests that the Hawkeyes fell to Central Michigan in the fashion they did as now the importance of stopping their skid has been ratcheted up considerably. But Iowa is vulnerable, leaving the 'U' with an opening. Kill has won only one road game with the Gophers -- this season's opener at UNLV. Winning in a partially filled stadium against a below average Rebels squad is one thing. But the difficultly level is multiplied when entering a rival's home turf to start Big Ten play, with 70,000 black and gold clad fans watching on. The Gophers practiced this week with speakers on the sidelines to get somewhat acquainted with the noise they will experience on Saturday.
Keeping Shortell and the offense on track: Sophomore QB Max Shortell's first start of the season in relief of Gray was solid, but he had his share of flaws. On several occasions against Syracuse, Shortell rushed passes or misread the defense at the line, leading to botched scoring chances He passed for 231 yards (16-of-31) and the Gophers will need that type of production again. But communication between Shortell and his receivers has to improve. 'U' receivers dropped seven passes, though some of those were the result of an ill-timed pass or tight defense by Syracuse. OC Matt Limegrover credits a portion of the offense's missteps to the adjustment period needed as the competition level starts to increase. "That was the fastest defense we had faced, so I think at times everybody wanted to speed things up," Limegrover said. "When you do that that is when a guy will take his eye off the ball or that's when a quarterback will rush a ball. I think we'll get back into a good rhythm this week, because it was kind of that shock to the system with the speed of the game ... I don't think you'll see those kinds of mistakes." The Gophers will have to hope Limegrover is correct. Iowa has held opponents to an average of 205 yards passing per game. Without Gray to take on a share of carries, RB Donnell Kirkwood was used on 28 of the Gophers' rushing attempts last week, resulting 99 yards. The Gophers are likely to ask him to do the same against Iowa in order to take pressure off Shortell in the pocket.
Running them down: After facing pass-oriented teams in back-to-back weeks, the Gophers are in for a change of pace. Ferentz's squad has a downhill rushing mentality, with the tendency to hammer opponents with physical runs up the middle. FB Mark Weisman has made a sudden ascension to standout status after combining for 330 yards and six touchdowns in the last two games. The Gophers' D-line and LB corps are in for their biggest test of the season so far. The Gophers have been mediocre at stopping the run - 128.5 yards per game - but they have made up for it with strong play in the secondary against the pass. Iowa is capable of exposing the Gophers' run stopping flaws. "They do a great a great job up front," DC Tracy Claeys said. "They get a body on a body. (Weisman) hardly ever gets hit before he gets to the line of scrimmage. By the time you get that much momentum going forward it's an issue. We've got to get some penetration ... That back weighs more than a couple of our linebackers do. It'll be important that he doesn't having a running downhill charge on him." Iowa QB James Vandenberg can't be forgotten. A 3,000-yard passer in 2011, Vandenberg has had an up and down start, suffering from a decrease in receiving talent. But the Gophers have to be ready in the secondary if Iowa decides to go after them.
The call: Gophers
A month ago, Iowa looked like almost a lock to take back the Floyd of Rosedale. The Gophers were thought to be an unproven team that would need multiple games before it was in shape to even consider going on the road and winning a game in the Big Ten. However, the scenario has been altered. The Gophers hold the momentum. For the first time in three years, this match-up is not merely a possible consolation prize for the Gophers. A win would put them one away from reaching bowl eligibility and provide an extra boost into their bye week. Iowa won't allow that to happen without tremendous resistance. Despite the Hawkeyes' struggles, they are still an upgrade over any of the Gophers' four opponents this season. The Gophers' rush defense is a major question mark. They will find out quickly on Saturday if they can slow down Weisman enough to create scoring chances.