Updated: September 27th, 2013 6:11pm
What to watch for: Gophers have a lot to prove against rival Iowa

What to watch for: Gophers have a lot to prove against rival Iowa

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by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com

Who: Minnesota Gophers (4-0) vs Iowa Hawkeyes (3-1)
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: TCF Bank Stadium (capacity: 50,805)
TV: ABC (KSTP-TV Ch. 5 - locally)
Line: Iowa by 2
Coaches: Gophers -- Jerry Kill (3rd season, 13-16). Iowa -- Kirk Ferentz (15th season, 103-75).
Series: Gophers lead 61-43-2
Last meeting: Sept 29, 2012 -- Minnesota was 4-0 for the first time in four years and a sense of unhinged optimism had suddenly gripped the program. But the Gophers weren't ready to handle the start of the Big Ten. Iowa provided a humbling reality check. The Hawkeyes sent the Gophers stumbling back to the Twin Cities after a 31-13 beatdown.

Injuries: Gophers' full injury report can be found here

State of affairs

Kill has the Gophers back at 4-0 for the second year in a row. But on the eve of conference play it continues to be hard to gauge what to expect from the Gophers, especially given their recent history. A likely slugfest with border rival Iowa in the battle for the Floyd of Rosedale should change that.

There is a growing, but guarded level of anticipation and excitement building around the Gophers. A win Saturday, which would put the Gophers at 5-0 for the first time since 2004, would undoubtedly ratchet up that attention. However, a loss could once again bring up a flurry of questions about their longevity in the conference season.

Iowa at a glance

Similar to the Gophers, Iowa's long-term outlook remains somewhat of a mystery. Reeling after a 4-8 campaign in 2012, the pressure is on Kirk Ferentz to get the Hawkeyes back to trending upward. Iowa stumbled out of the gate with a loss to reigning MAC champion Northern Illinois, but closed out the rest of the nonconference slate with wins against Missouri State, Iowa State and Western Michigan. 

Hawkeye to watch

Junior RB Mark Weisman

Weisman ravaged the Gophers' defense last year for 177 yards and a touchdown off 21 carries. The big-bodied power back is a threat to do the same one year later. In four games, Weisman is averaging 117 yards per outing (468 yds) -- the second-best mark in the Big Ten, behind only Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon.

What to watch for from the Gophers

Can they handle it?

The Gophers were 4-0 last season, but it became readily apparent in less than a half at Iowa that they weren't ready for the competition upgrade of the Big Ten and struggled to fight back for much of the rest of the season.

But the mindset within the program this time around seems to have undergone a shift. Reasonable signs of improvement are there -- handling their nonconference schedule with relative ease, outscoring opponents 167-80, while holding an identity as the Big Ten's least penalized squad.

How the Gophers respond on Saturday, amid the pressures of their 4-0 start, a widely hyped rivalry game on homecoming and a legitimate Big Ten test, will go a long ways in gauging the true identity of Kill's team.

Leidner encore

Recovering from a hamstring strain, sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson is closing in on a return, but redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner is still expected to make his second career start. Leidner has made a notable first impression on the "U" fan base last week, tearing into the endzone four times in the course of 151 rushing yards in his first start in the Gophers' 43-24 handling of San Jose State last week.

Leidner has yet to face the grind of the Big Ten, nor has he and the "U" offense been force to pass. Iowa won't be caught off-guard by Leidner's capability to run. Going up against Iowa's aggressive front line will be a key test of Leidner's composure as the Gophers' signal caller.

To the air

It's the biggest knock against the Gophers right now - despite an impressively thriving run game, they have a rarely used, unestablished passing attack. The Gophers rank dead last in the Big Ten in passing attempts (33-of-62 for 421 yards). The conference's second-least prolific passing team, Michigan State, has double that total (67-of-129 for 615 yards).

Relying almost entirely on a power run game against Iowa isn't going to work. The Hawkeyes have yet to allow a rushing touchdown this year. The Gophers have to show they can pose at least some threat from the air. That will be a hefty challenge for an unproven receiving corps, still without a defined go-to threat.

Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover continue to insist the potential is there. If so, the time is now for that potential to show up on the field.

Defensive stand

Iowa has close to double the Gophers' passing yards (797 to 421 yards), but Ferentz's squad primary offensive impact comes from an established run game. With Weisman looming in the Hawkeye backfield, Minnesota's defense faces it biggest test of the year. It's essential the Gophers lock in early on and avoid being put almost immediately on their heels like what happened in 2012.

Iowa starting quarterback Jake Rudock is a viable passing threat, but the Gophers have a chance to rattle him if they can get pressure in the backfield quickly in the first half. It took the "U" defense until the second half against the sleek offensive attack of San Jose State's David Fales before getting fully settled down. The margin of error will be considerably less on Saturday, with a Gopher offense that may struggle to score.

Calling it

Gophers 24, Iowa 21

This an exceptionally difficult call -- a rarity in three years on the Gophers beat. The setting plays into this one. If the rivalry match-up was back at Kinnick Stadium this year, Iowa, with its better offensive balance, would be more clearly the frontrunner.

But if Minnesota can find some way to spark a reasonable amount of production from their passing game, the Gophers have shown the potential resiliency needed to hold on in arguably one of the most significant games in Kill's tenure.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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