MINNEAPOLIS — Big Ten play is finally here for Jerry Kill and the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Kill’s team opens conference play against one of its biggest rivals as the Iowa Hawkeyes come to TCF Bank Stadium for the Big Ten opener. Minnesota is off to a 4-0 start while Iowa suffered a loss to Northern Illinois and went 3-1 in non-conference play. A pig is at stake when these rivals collide on Saturday.
Here are five things to watch:
1. Can the Gophers’ passing game get on track?
Head coach Jerry Kill is being coy with naming a starting quarterback this week. Both sophomore Philip Nelson and redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner were listed as co-starters for Saturday’s game against Iowa. Nelson missed last week’s game with a hamstring injury as Leidner made his first career start. Saturday’s starter hinges on Nelson’s health, but indications are that Leidner will indeed be under center once again.
Regardless of which quarterback gets the start, Minnesota needs to get its passing attack going. Through four games, the Gophers rank dead last in the Big Ten in passing yards per game (105.2 ypg). While Leidner had a big game last week with four rushing touchdowns, he threw for just 71 yards on 5-of-12 passing. Iowa has allowed just 91.5 rushing yards per game so far this season, so Minnesota will need to find some type of success through the air in order to move the ball against the stingy Hawkeyes run defense.
2. Bigger, stronger, tougher.
This isn’t non-conference play anymore. Minnesota beat up on its four non-conference foes rather easily and the Gophers eventually wore down their opponents by the end of the four games. Teams like UNLV and Western Illinois were simply undersized and outmatched against Minnesota as the Gophers’ offensive line handled opposing defenses with relative ease. None of Minnesota’s opponents played a particularly physical brand of football, something synonymous with the Big Ten.
That changes now, though. Iowa’s offensive and defensive linemen are bigger than Minnesota has seen this year, meaning the Gophers’ success in the running game — and success stopping opponents’ rushing attacks — might change. The Hawkeyes have three starting offensive linemen topping 300 pounds, while its defensive linemen are nearly as beefy. And Iowa’s starting running back, Mark Weisman, weighs in at a bruising 236 pounds. While Minnesota’s players have gotten bigger and stronger under Kill (and strength coach Eric Klein), the Gophers will be tested in that department on Saturday. Whichever team is most physical may likely be the team that walks away a winner.
3. Is this 4-0 different?
When these same teams met last year, Minnesota was off to a 4-0 start after its non-conference schedule. But the Gophers certainly didn’t play like a 4-0 team in Iowa City as the Hawkeyes rolled to a 31-13 victory. Kill said this week that this team simply “kicked our butt for four quarters.” That loss started a bit of a tailspin for Minnesota, which won just two of eight Big Ten games before sneaking into a bowl game.
The vibe around the team feels different this time around. Even to the naked eye, Minnesota’s wins have been far more impressive this season than they were in 2012. The Gophers didn’t have to edge out any opponents like they did a few times last year. Minnesota isn’t making the same mental mistakes it did in years past, either, and has been penalized far less. Those are adding up to a confident Gophers squad entering Saturday’s game, but that doesn’t mean Kill’s team is overlooking the task at hand.
4. Three-headed monster?
Minnesota has three running backs it feels comfortable with in Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams Jr. and David Cobb. Kirkwood has missed time due to an ankle injury suffered in the season opener, leaving Williams and Cobb to pick up the slack. Cobb had a coming-out party last weekend when he rushed for 125 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the win against San Jose State. He also had two touchdowns one week earlier against Western Illinois. Williams, meanwhile, has taken the snaps as the starter and had his best game in Week 2 against New Mexico State when he gained 148 yards on 16 carries.
It appears the Gophers may work Kirkwood back into the mix this weekend against Iowa, giving Minnesota plenty of options in what has become a crowded backfield. It’s likely that Kirkwood’s carries will be limited if he does indeed return Saturday, but it will be interesting to see how the carousel of backs is used. Add in the fact that both Nelson and Leidner are capable of running the ball and the Gophers have even more options in the rushing game.
5. Will Floyd return to Minneapolis?
The Gophers held custody of Floyd of Rosedale, a bronze pig awarded to the annual winner of their game against Iowa, for two seasons before the Hawkeyes seized Floyd last year. That means Minnesota currently owns zero of its four trophies from its rivalry games with Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State. Iowa and Minnesota have played for the pig since 1935, with the Gophers owning a 41-35-2 edge in the series. But Minnesota has won just three times in the last 12 meetings, a drought it’s hoping to end Saturday.
The Gophers players — especially those who grew up in Minnesota — seem to understand what the rivalry means to not only the school but to the entire state. Jerry Kill uses the rivalry and the trophy as a sales pitch when talking with recruits, so even the newcomers known the significance of Saturday’s game.
The team has made T-shirts with slogans emphasizing the importance of Floyd. Fans at TCF Bank Stadium routinely chant, “Who hates Iowa? We hate Iowa!” even during games in which they’re not playing the Hawkeyes. And the Gophers have started a hashtag on Twitter, #BringFloydHome.
There’s a spot in the trophy case waiting for the pig. All Minnesota has to do is win Saturday and Floyd will once again reside in Dinkytown.