MINNEAPOLIS — The defense should seemingly have the advantage when an opposing offense is faced with a 3rd-and-long situation. That simply wasn’t the case Saturday for the Gophers in their 23-7 loss to Iowa.
Minnesota’s defense couldn’t get off the field as the Hawkeyes continuously made plays on third down, especially on 3rd-and-long. Iowa converted on 8-of-14 third downs, which in part led to the Hawkeyes’ dominance in time of possession (36:01-23:59).
“I think it’s deflating for everybody,” head coach Jerry Kill said of his team’s inability to stop Iowa on third down. “If you’d been in our pregame stuff, we talked about how critical third down is. They executed on third down and we didn’t. That’s part of football. You’ve got to get off the field on third down.”
Never was it more glaring than during an Iowa scoring drive in the third quarter that chewed 6:42 off the clock on 15 total plays. The Hawkeyes converted three plays of 3rd-and-8 or more on the drive to move the ball down the field. The first came on 3rd-and-9 when quarterback Jake Rudock hit Jacob Hillyer for 14 yards. Three players later, Rudock found Kevonte Martin-Manley for eight yards and a first down on 3rd-and-8.
Iowa would do the same thing one more time on that drive, picking up 22 yards on 3rd-and-9 when Rudock tucked the ball and ran all the way to Minnesota’s 32-yard line. While that Hawkeyes drive resulted in just three points, it kept the Gophers’ defense on the field for far too long as Minnesota simply couldn’t get a big stop when it needed one.
“It’s one of the most important downs in football is third down,” said defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli. “You’ve got to get off the field. That’s not to say that the other downs in football aren’t important, but it takes a toll on you when there’s a third down conversion.”
The Hawkeyes also had a big gain on a third down play in the second quarter when Rudock hit fullback Adam Cox on a short pass on 3rd-and-3. Cox found room to run and gained 35 yards to help set up an Iowa field goal.
Minnesota had allowed its opponents to convert on third down 31.6 percent of the time entering Saturday’s game, while Iowa had a 51.5 percent success rate on third downs. Conversely, the Gophers’ offense sputtered on third downs, converting just four of 13 attempts.
Engel emerges as top target: To this point, Minnesota had yet to find a top target for quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner. Derrick Engel may have emerged as the Gophers’ go-to receiver.
The senior from Chaska, Minn., had a team-high five catches for 67 yards and the Gophers’ lone touchdown. In fact, Engel was the only wide receiver with more than two catches; running back David Cobb had three. Engel scored on a 23-yard pass from Nelson late in the third quarter to cut Iowa’s lead to 20-7.
“Derrick did a good job. He really did,” Kill said. “We’re going to be pleased with what he did. I think there are some people that did some good things. But as a whole team, we got outplayed today. That’s as simple as I can put it.”
Engel also was able to get wide open on a few other plays in which Nelson couldn’t get him the ball. Even on the plays in which he didn’t make the catch, Engel showed that he has the ability to create some separation from opposing defensive backs.
“They tried to press him a couple times. They tried to wall him off a couple times,” Nelson said. “He did a really good job of getting off the press and really gaining separation. … On the touchdown, too, he did a good job of getting off the press and getting open. That’s something that we knew Derrick could do the whole time.”
Another big day for Weisman: In last year’s defeat against Iowa, the Gophers let Hawkeyes running back Mark Weisman run wild. The bruising back gained 177 yards and a touchdown to lead Iowa to a 31-13 win.
One year later, Weisman again found success against Minnesota’s rushing defense. The 6-foot, 236-pound junior picked up a game-high 147 yards on 24 carries — an average of 6.1 yards per carry. His first run of the day went for 10 yards, a sign of things to come for Weisman and the Hawkeyes.
“That’s the Big Ten Conference,” Botticelli said. “That wasn’t a surprise to see a big back. You expect that.”
Saturday was Weisman’s fourth 100-yard game of the season. The 147 yards were the second-most this year; he ran for 180 yards in a win against Missouri State.