MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota was welcomed to Big Ten play by the Iowa Hawkeyes, who topped the Gophers 23-7 in Saturday’s conference opener at TCF Bank Stadium. For Minnesota, the loss erased any sort of momentum and positive vibes gained from its 4-0 start in non-conference play. The Floyd of Rosedale trophy will reside in Iowa City for another year as the Hawkeyes have now won this rivalry game two years in a row. The Gophers have to regroup after Saturday’s ugly loss and prepare for a tough test on the road at Michigan next weekend.
Here’s a look at the grades for Minnesota’s performance Saturday.
Running offense: F
Minnesota’s identity through its first four games was a run-first offense that found plenty of success on the ground. Saturday against Iowa, the Gophers lost the battle in the trenches and couldn’t do anything by running the ball.
Minnesota ran for just 30 yards on 27 carries, an average of only 1.1 yards per carry. The Gophers saw junior Donnell Kirkwood return to action but he had just three carries for six yards. Rodrick Williams led Minnesota with 22 yards on seven carries, while David Cobb gained 20 yards on eight rushing attempts.
Quarterback Philip Nelson returned from a hamstring injury but had zero impact on the running game. At times, he still appeared as if the hamstring was bothering him. As a result, Nelson never looked comfortable running the ball.
Iowa’s rushing defense was stout prior to Saturday, as the Hawkeyes had not allowed a rushing touchdown. Minnesota found out the hard way that winning a game on the offensive and defensive line is much tougher in the Big Ten than it is against the likes of UNLV and Western Illinois.
Passing offense: C-minus
While Nelson was a complete non-factor with his legs, he was able to make a few plays with his arm. He finished 12-for-24 for 135 yards and a touchdown but also threw a pair of interceptions.
It took Nelson a while to find a rhythm, and his first few passes went for incompletions on plays in which he had his receiver wide open. Nelson finally did get on the same page with wide receiver Derrick Engel, who had a team-high five catches for 67 yards and a 23-yard touchdown. But Nelson missed Engel on several plays, including a few downfield. And Nelson also threw behind his receivers a few times, including a pass to tight end Drew Goodger that resulted in one of Nelson’s two interceptions.
Running defense: D-plus
Last season, Hawkeyes running back Mark Weisman ran all over the Gophers, especially in the first half. One year later, it was the same story. Weisman gained 147 yards on 24 carries and was able to pick up big gains early and often.
Damon Bullock offered a change of pace in the backfield for Iowa, picking up an additional 47 yards on 11 carries, and quarterback Jake Rudock also had some success with his feet — something the Gophers admitted after the game that they weren’t expecting. Rudock ran for 35 yards, including a long 22-yarder on third down, and scrambled for a 4-yard touchdown to put the Hawkeyes up 10-0.
Just as Minnesota lost the battle in the trenches on offense, the same was true on defense. The 246 total rushing yards were easily the most Minnesota has allowed so far this season.
Passing defense: C-minus
Rudock completed 15 of 25 passes for 218 yards. His one touchdown pass was a 74-yard bubble screen in which Damond Powell did most of the work with his legs after the short completion. Minnesota was completely caught off guard by the screen pass and never had a chance to catch Powell as he sprinted for the end zone en route to a 17-0 Hawkeyes lead. Kevonte Martin-Manley was Rudock’s go-to target, hauling in six passes for 56 yards. But Roduck spread the ball around as eight different players caught a pass Saturday. Minnesota’s defensive line struggled to get pressure on Rudock and failed to sack him once during the game. That allowed the sophomore plenty of time to find his receivers and move the ball down the field.
The Gophers’ passing defense was especially suspect in 3rd-and-long situations; Iowa completed a pair of passes on 3rd-and-long on one drive to keep the chains moving, and Rudock hit fullback Adam Cox for a 35-yard gain on another third down play. The secondary did get banged up — both cornerback Derrick Wells and safety Brock Vereen suffered injuries but returned to action — but the defensive backs struggled to get Minnesota off the field on third downs.
Special teams: B
Special teams didn’t really play much of a factor in Saturday’s loss for the Gophers. Chris Hawthorne never attempted a field goal but converted his only extra point of the game. Kick returners Antonio Johnson and Marcus Jones both had big returns of 53 and 66 yards, respectively. Jones’ 66-yard runback gave Minnesota the ball on the Iowa 34-yard line and the Gophers scored their only touchdown four plays later. Punter Peter Mortell had his best game of the season, averaging 46.6 yards per punt. He was active, too, punting a season-high seven times. Two of those punts were downed inside the 20-yard line.
There weren’t many positives for the Gophers in Saturday’s loss. Many of the things Minnesota did right in its first four games — limit turnovers and penalties, run the ball effectively, stop the run — were absent against Iowa. Many, including the Gophers, believed this year’s 4-0 start was more impressive than last year’s 4-0 start. But once again, Iowa showed that Minnesota’s record was a bit misleading. This was a game that many people viewed as a winnable game and included it as one of six games the Gophers should win to become bowl eligible. Now, Minnesota has an uphill battle throughout the rest of the Big Ten season.