By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - This isn’t necessarily good news given my record for predicting the outcome of Iowa football games, but I’ve given little consideration to Minnesota winning on Saturday.
Before you get too excited, I’m 2-2 this season after picking Iowa to lose to Iowa State and beat Wisconsin.
Nebraska would love to have my record, but I know Iowa fans expect a lot more than what is coming out of Lincoln these days.
Scott Frost has gone from saying he was reluctant to schedule a 12th game after Nebraska’s season opener was cancelled due to lightning because he apparently felt the Cornhuskers could make the Big Ten championship game to now calling his 0-4 squad the most undisciplined team in college football.
But this column isn’t about Nebraska, it’s about the other border rival that used to rule college football.
Long before Nebraska became a national power, Minnesota ruled the college football landscape, winning six national titles from 1904 to 1941 and a seventh in 1960.
You’re probably wondering what that has to do with Saturday’s game at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis and the answer is nothing.
The current Minnesota squad is coming off an embarrassing 42-13 loss at Maryland on Oct. 22 and has a roster with 59 players, including walk-on starting quarterback Zack Annexstad, who are either true freshmen or redshirt freshmen.
Injuries to key players have also been a problem. Losing star running back Rodney Smith for the season was bad enough. But to also lose standout defensive back and punt returner Antoine Winfield is potentially disastrous.
“Minnesota is a team we expect to be motivated,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “Certainly, they're well-coached, and on top of that, they'll be playing at home. We've got a big challenge in that regard.”
Ferentz is right to say that Minnesota will be motivated and more dangerous playing at home against an Iowa team that will be playing on the road for the first time this season.
Ferentz respects all of his opponents, and rightfully so, because that’s what a head coach should do.
But I’m not a head coach and I still say Iowa has no business losing on Saturday under the circumstances. I’ve thought that before and been wrong, including the five times that Iowa has lost to a team from the Mid-American Conference under Ferentz.
Minnesota might become a force under second-year head coach P.J. Fleck, whose high energy and catchy promotional phrases such as “Row the Boat” have lit a spark.
But that certainly isn’t the case now.
The only way I see Iowa losing on Saturday is if it commits multiple turnovers and falls behind early. That could cause second-year offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz to panic by abandoning the running game for trying to make big plays through the air, which is hardly Iowa’s strength.
Minnesota is ranked third in the Big Ten in total defense, allowing just 300.3 yards per game. And while that can’t be dismissed, the competition, or lack there of, has something to do with the high ranking.
Minnesota’s three victories have come against New Mexico State (48-10), Fresno State (21-14) and Miami (Ohio) (26-3).
Maryland shredded the Gophers for 315 rushing, which included touchdowns runs of 81 and 64 yards.
The Terrapins are more explosive than Iowa on offense, but the Hawkeyes still should be able to run the ball effectively against this Minnesota defense, especially now that starting running back Ivory Kelly-Martin has fully recovered an from ankle injury that caused him to miss the Iowa State and Northern Iowa games.
Iowa is also coming off a bye week, and the timing of the bye week was ideal for Kelly-Martin.
“The bye week definitely came in handy,” Kelly-Martin said Tuesday. “It came in handy for everybody, just cool down a little bit and take a little break and everyone get healthy and rest a lot of our starting guys.”
Iowa always strives for balance on offense and that should be obtainable against the Gophers.
Assuming the running game clicks, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley should have the luxury of using play-action and throwing to what is considered the best one-two punch at tight end in the Big Ten, if not the nation, in Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson.
“They’re going to run the football, but then they’ve got two of the best tight ends you’ll ever see,” said Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck. “They might have the first tight end taking in the draft coming up here, and they use him in all the nakeds, all the boots, all the waggles, all the play-action passes, the deep crosses, the deep overs, and it doesn’t matter if he’s covered or not.”
Fleck was referring to Fant, who has caught 45 passes since the start of last season with 15 resulting in touchdowns.
The Iowa defense was dominant in the first three games against Northern Illinois, Iowa State and Northern Iowa, but then surrendered more than 400 yards during the 28-17 loss to Wisconsin, including 210 rushing yards.
The Badgers are in a different class than Minnesota, however, especially on offense.
Fleck is preaching patience to Gopher fans because he knows that his current squad is vulnerable with a true freshman playing quarterback and with so many first and second-year players having significant roles.
I’m rarely this confident heading into the battle for Floyd of Rosedale, but Iowa is clearly superior on paper and much healthier than Minnesota.
Home-field advantage and being motivated shouldn’t be enough to overcome that.
Prediction: Iowa 31, Minnesota 13