Iowa offense vs. Minnesota defense
Last season, the Golden Gophers defense suffered through one of the worst seasons in school history. Minnesota surrendered and average of 36.7 points and 518.7 yards a game in coach Tim Brewster’s first season. The problems were more personnel than scheme and that showed when last year’s defensive coordinator, Everett Withers, left for the same post with North Carolina in February.
The fact that there was a market for Everett’s services screams that personnel was the problem. Brewster’s heralded recruiting class of ’08 has been the cavalry for this side of the ball.
Junior college transfers have helped Ted Roof, former Duke head coach, and this unit make dramatic improvement.
Linebacker Simoni Lawrence has nine tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, three pass breakups, an interception, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He’s also returned a fumble and interception for touchdowns this season, the first Gopher to do that since 1996.
Jucos also have lifted the secondary. Cornerback Traye Simmons leads UM with four interceptions. He leads the conference and is third nationally with 13 pass breakups. Safety Tramaine Brock is second on the team with 65 tackles. He’s forced fumbles in each of UM’s last two games.
Minnesota is allowing just 20.5 points a game. After forcing only 14 turnovers in 12 games last season the Gophers have 30 this season, including 14 interceptions. Their turnover margin of plus-15 leads the conference and is fourth nationally.
When the Gophers don’t force turnovers is when the trouble starts. In a 29-6 loss to Michigan, the Gophers were battered by a backup QB and a rush offense that produced 232 yards.
Senior defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg is the Gophers’ impact defensive player. He has team highs of 18 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. VanDeSteeg suffered through a disappointing season in 2007. He suffered a broken wrist just before the opener and finished with only 29 tackles, including one sack. Healthy this season, the 6-foot-4, 256-pounder has become the school’s career leader in tackles for loss.
One of the big questions Iowa’s offense faced going against Penn State was how tackles Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway would hold up against PSU’s terrific ends. They shutout end Aaron Maybin, the Big Ten’s sack leader with 12, and allowed end Josh Gaines a half sack. There were breakdowns on the inside, however, with tackle Jared Odrick picking up a pair of sacks.
Here’s your weekly update on RB Shonn Greene’s climb up the single-season rushing list: With 1,585, the junior needs just 106 yards to match Tavian Banks’ season record of 1,691 yards set in 1997. Greene also needs two more touchdowns to equal Banks’ season record of 17 rushing TDs, also set in ‘97. With last week’s 211 yards, Greene joined Banks and Sedrick Shaw (1995) as the only Iowa running backs to top 200 in a game twice in one season and ever.
QB Ricky Stanzi completed only eight passes for 72 yards against Purdue last week, but he had a turnover-free game and the Hawkeyes walked out of Kinnick with a senior day victory.
Watch Iowa receivers today when they run after the catch. Last week, Andy Brodell and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos fumbled when hit in the back and struggling for extra yards. It’s a quick fix. In the last two weeks, Johnson-Koulianos has caught 10 passes for 115 yards.
Minnesota allowed just 116 rushing yards to the Badgers last week. If UM does that again, it probably wins.
Iowa defense vs. Minnesota offense
Minnesota sophomore quarterback Adam Weber is holding the Gophers’ offense together.
He ranks second in the Big Ten in passing at 223.5 yards a game. He has completed 63.8 percent of his passes, tops in the conference. He’s also second in the league in total offense at 241.6 yards a game. But with top receiver Eric Decker, a Big Ten offensive MVP candidate, ailing with a high-ankle sprain, Weber has been shaky. He’s been sacked 13 times in the last four games. Against Michigan’s second-worst pass defense in the Big Ten, Weber threw for only 105 yards. Against Wisconsin, he completed 15 of 30 for 202 yards and an interception, but he also threw three TD passes to a receiving corps that is growing by leaps and bounds in Decker’s absence and rushed for another. Weber is a gamer who can lift a team.
The Gophers’ running game won’t scare anybody, averaging 114.8 yards and 3.4 yards a carry, both of which are worst in the Big Ten. Duane Bennett, the team’s best tailback, played in only two games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Freshman DeLeon Eskridge can make plays but only averages 58.7 yards a game and 3.9 yards a carry.
Simply put, the line is learning on the job. The Gophers have allowed 26 sacks, 10th in the Big Ten. Red-shirt freshman Ryan Wynn has started all 11 games at right tackle. He’s the only OL to start every game this season. Last week at Wisconsin, the Gophers had three red-shirt freshmen starting on the OL, with Wynn, Trey Davis and Ryan Orton. Another red-shirt frosh, Chris Bunders, has three starts this season. The Gophers have used seven different combinations of starters on the OL this season.
Decker, a junior, was green lit for today’s game early in the week, signaling that the high-ankle sprain he suffered Nov. 1 in the third quarter against Northwestern is improving. To say that the Gophers have missed the 6-2, 215-pounder is serious understatement. Decker has 74 of the team’s 224 receptions, 892 of the team’s 2,470 receiving yards and six of the team’s 14 receiving touchdowns. Before scoring 32 points at Wisconsin last week, the Gophers had zero touchdowns and just six points without Decker. He sat out last week, but tried to play Nov. 8 against Michigan but was removed before halftime.
The Hawkeyes’ defense has played winning football in every game this season. The three statistics that stand out are rush defense, red zone defense and interceptions.
Iowa is second in the Big Ten in rush defense, allowing just 106.5 yards a game and 3.2 a carry. One running back, Maine’s Jhamal Fluellen, has rushed for more than 100 yards against Iowa. The Hawkeyes have held Javon Ringer, LeSean McCoy, Evan Royster and Kory Sheets to less than 100 yards. That’s the Nos. 3, 12, 22 and 29 rushers in the country. Also, they’re all 1,000-yard rushers.
Iowa’s red zone defense, when opponents are within the Hawkeyes’ 20-yard line, is second in the Big Ten and 20th nationally, allowing points just 75 percent of the time. This is the “bend don’t break” philosophy at work. This shows up on the scoreboard and wins games.
Iowa’s 18 interceptions are tied for second in the country. This also is a byproduct of “bend don’t break.” Defensive coordinator Norm Parker puts the challenge to offenses. Put together long scoring drives, if you can. Not a lot can.
Brewster’s recruiting effort has shown up here. The Gophers rank ahead of Iowa in three of five special teams categories. Opponents aren’t going far on punt and kick returns, with the Gophers holding them to 8.4 and 18.4 yards a return, respectively. Punter Justin Kucek averages 41.8 yards a punt and has had 19 fair catches and 17 downed inside the opponents’ 20. Kicker Joel Monroe has made 12 of 16 kicks, including 8 of 10 from 30 to 49 yards. He’s made 4 of his last 5 kicks.
A lot has been made of freshman Trent Mossbrucker’s struggles last week. After being passed over in favor of Daniel Murry for the game-winning 31-yarder against Penn State in the final seconds, Mossbrucker missed a pair of PATs, his only kicks against Purdue. Yes, Mossbrucker needs to regroup, but don’t lose sight of Murray’s rise. After not attempting a kick since week 4, Murray beat Penn State and ripped a 45-yarder through the uprights last week against Purdue, Iowa’s longest field goal this season and longest since he booted a 47-yarder against Michigan State last season.
Last week, Purdue’s Aaron Valentin came up with a season-long 64-yard kick return against the Hawkeyes. This unit has been iffy with sophomore Jayme Murphy in and out of the lineup.
Minnesota coach Tim Brewster laid the Gophers’ emotional cards on the table against Wisconsin. He called the Paul Bunyan Axe Minnesota’s most important trophy game, knowing his team faced the Hawkeyes and the battle for the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy this week. He wanted to fire up his team and did, but how many “get ‘em ups” does a team have? This is the third straight trophy game for the Gophers. How much emotion is left in the gas tank? This is the season finale and Metrodome finale, you can bet this team will be fired up.
The 2006 season seems like a long time ago, but not long enough for Iowa players who remember Kirk Ferentz’s outburst at the Metrodome. The Hawkeyes stunk in a 34-24 loss and Ferentz fumed. That said, Ferentz set the tone for the week when he addressed two things at the beginning of his Tuesday news conference, the Shonn Greene-NFL talk and bowls. The focus can’t be ragged heading into the UM’s last Dome game. Better Iowa teams have lost with a lot more on the line here.