By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Given the current circumstances, it would be easy to pick the Iowa football team to lose to undefeated Minnesota on Saturday.
It would be easy to assume that Iowa will find yet another way to lose a close game to a quality opponent because it already has happened three times this season.
Iowa’s three losses to Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin were by a combined 14 points.
It would be easy to assume that the Iowa offense will be passive and struggle against the Gophers because that seems to happen to the Iowa offense in big games.
And this is definitely a big game with Minnesota 9-0 and ranked seventh in this week’s Associated Press poll.
It isn’t really a surprise that somebody will have a chance to play the role of spoiler in Saturday’s game at Kinnick Stadium. What’s surprising is that Iowa has that role, and not the Gophers.
Iowa was considered by many to be a legitimate contender in the Big Ten West Division, while Minnesota was considered a program on the rise under third-year head coach P.J. Fleck, but not quite a contender.
“They play smart football, said Iowa coach kirk Ferentz. “They're playing really good football, and so if you're going to beat them, you're going to have to really earn it. For us, it's going to require us to play well in all three areas.”
By all three areas, Ferentz, of course, means offense, defense and special teams.
Iowa’s problem in its three losses is that it failed to do all three things well at the same time.
The defense performed well during losses to Michigan and Penn State, but was a sieve against Wisconsin, allowing 300 rushing yards during the 24-22 loss this past Saturday in Madison, Wis.
The offense struggled during the losses to Michigan and Penn State, scoring just one touchdown in the two games, and combining for only 15 points.
The offense also struggled for about three-fourths of the Wisconsin game where it finally came to life in the fourth quarter when quarterback Nate Stanley threw two touchdown passes, including a 75-yard scoring strike to Tyrone Tracy Jr. with slightly more than 3 minutes to play.
Special teams have been solid throughout the season for the most part, especially from a kicking and punting standpoint.
Iowa’s inability to score touchdowns in the red zone might ultimately help junior kicker Keith Duncan from an individual awards standpoint, considering he is tied for first in country with 22 made field goals.
But it’ll take more than just field goals to defeat the Gophers, who besides being a smart football team, are also extremely talented.
Minnesota is ranked third in the Big Ten in total offense and sixth in total defense.
The Gophers also have arguably the top pair of receivers in the conference in Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, and are loaded at running back.
Combine all of that firepower with a massive offensive line and a quarterback who leads the conference in passing efficiency in Tanner Morgan and it’s easy to see why Minnesota is soaring under Fleck.
The Gophers still had plenty of doubters until this past Saturday when they defeated Penn State 31-26 in Minneapolis.
Minnesota now has a signature win, and has won 11 games overall dating back to last season. That is tied with Baylor for the third longest winning streak in the nation.
But with all of that success and glory comes pressure and expectations.
You could argue that Minnesota has lot more to lose on Saturday than Iowa because Iowa already has lost the chance for a special season.
Iowa’s motivation should come from knowing that it could finish as high as 10-3 or as low as 6-7 when you factor in a bowl game. That is a huge gap in which most fans probably would accept the best-case scenario, and maybe even a 9-win season, but nothing below that.
So there is pressure on the Iowa players to avoid having a six, seven or eight-win season because that just wouldn’t cut it for most fans, especially since this is Kirk Ferentz’s 21st season as head coach.
The Gophers are on the cusp of greatness, but they’re not there yet, and still have lots of work to do with three games left in the regular season, including the finale against Wisconsin on Nov. 30th at home.
Minnesota also plays at Northwestern a week after the Iowa game, and though the Wildcats are struggling at 1-8, it would dangerous and foolish to underestimate any team coached by Pat Fitzgerald.
As for predicting a winner for Saturday’s game, I’m not taking the easy route.
I’m picking Iowa.
I’m picking the Hawkeyes to spoil Minnesota’s quest to finish the regular season undefeated for several reasons, including the law of averages.
The Hawkeyes are long overdue to win a game of this magnitude, and they’ll be playing at home and before a blackout crowd on Military Appreciation Day.
There will also be a flyover at Kinnick Stadium featuring for A-10 fighter jets just minutes before kickoff, so the atmosphere should be electric.
Another reason I’m picking Iowa is because this Iowa team isn’t as bad as some are saying right now as prisoners of the moment.
I’ve had countless Hawkeye fans tell me since the Wisconsin loss that Iowa has no chance against the Gophers.
To say that Iowa has absolutely no chance in this game is being a prisoner of the moment.
Something tells me that Kirk Ferentz and his assistant coaches and players will circle the wagons and figure out a way to get it done when few expect them to win.
Iowa defeated second-ranked Michigan 14-13 on Nov. 12, 2016 at Kinnick Stadium and also pounded third-ranked Ohio State 55-24 on Nov. 4, 2017 at Kinnick Stadium.
So maybe it’s something about hosting a highly ranked team in November that brings out the best in Iowa.
Opponents often say that Kinnick Stadium is one of the most difficult road environments in the Big Ten because the fans are so close to the field and they become a distraction.
There is also Floyd of Rosedale to consider, the bronze statue of a pig that goes to the winner of this game.
Thanks to a four-game winning streak in the series, Floyd has been residing in Iowa City since 2015, so the current players have obviously grown attached to him.
“At the end of the day, we don’t want them to leave with the pig,” said Iowa senior defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore.
My biggest concern with picking Iowa is that it’ll almost certainly take a productive running game to pull it off, but that’s where Iowa often comes up short.
Minnesota is allowing 124.1 rushing yards per game, which ranks seventh in the Big Ten.
So the yards on the ground probably won’t come easy, and yet, I’m still picking Iowa.
Call me a homer, or an idiot, but I just think there is too much talent, character and leadership on this Iowa team to allow for this season to collapse.
And I don't just automatically pick Iowa to win.
In fact, I picked Iowa to lose to Iowa State, Michigan and Wisconsin this season. So I'm two-for-three in that regard.
I’m also not convinced that Minnesota is ready to handle the pressure that comes with being on the big stage.
Iowa made it through the 2015 regular season undefeated, but it took some luck, including a huge fumble recovery at Wisconsin that happened midway through the fourth quarter when former Badger quarterback Joel Stave tripped and lost the ball while trying to make a handoff at the Iowa 1-yard line.
Iowa would go on to defeat the Badgers 10-6 despite only having 77 passing yards.
I’m confident in saying that Nate Stanley will throw for more than 77 yards against Gophers on Saturday.
My hope is that Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz chooses to be aggressive early in the game by going up tempo, and by allowing Stanley to throw downfield more often.
My hope is that Iowa plays to win on offense, rather than playing not to lose.
And as Andy Dufresne said in the classic move “The Shawshank Redemption, “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.”
Prediction: Iowa 27, Minnesota 24