Gophers ground attack comes up empty against Iowa
MINNEAPOLIS -- Welcome to the Big Ten, Gophers.
After a convincing 4-0 start in non-conference play, Minnesota suffered a 23-7 loss at home to the Iowa Hawkeyes. All the momentum the Gophers had garnered when they rolled through four non-conference foes is now gone, and there are many questions to be answered this week.
If this scenario sounds familiar, it should. Just look back to last season when the Gophers also started 4-0 before losing to the same Hawkeyes team on the road. Now Minnesota must regroup from Saturday's loss to one of its biggest rivals as it heads on the road for two Big Ten games.
"You sit around and worry about it too much and you let that last and you get beat again and again and again. We've got to let it go and move forward," head coach Jerry Kill said after his team's loss. "It should hurt tonight. If you're a competitive person, it hurts. I've always said, losing a game is -- if you really take it seriously -- like dying a little bit. Then you've got to rise up to the occasion and just keep coming back."
Most of the facets of Minnesota's game that appeared improved through four games simply disappeared in Saturday's loss. Perhaps the most glaring was the Gophers' running game. Minnesota's rushing game averaged 282.2 yards per game on the ground in the first four games as the Gophers' offensive line manhandled the undersized defenses of their non-conference opponents.
Saturday, the Gophers gained a mere 30 rushing yards on 27 carries -- an average of just 1.1 yards per carry -- against a stout Iowa defense. Sophomore Rodrick Williams led Minnesota with just 22 rushing yards, including a team-high 12-yard carry. David Cobb added 20 yards, while Donnell Kirkwood had just three carries for six total yards.
The Hawkeyes didn't allow a rushing touchdown in their first four games and held opponents to an average of under 100 yards rushing. The way Minnesota had been moving the ball on the ground, though, it appeared as if something might give. But again, the Gophers were no longer battling in the trenches with undersized defensive lines.
"We take a lot of pride in our run game, obviously," said quarterback Philip Nelson, who started Saturday after missing last week's game with a hamstring injury. "Any time you can't really run the football as well as you'd hoped, it really affects the rest of the game plan -- especially a team like us who really relies on the run game."
Minnesota also failed to hurt itself during the 4-0 start by limited penalties and turnovers. It was the least-penalized team in the Big Ten but committed five penalties Saturday for a total of 45 yards. One was a costly false start that turned a 3rd-and-1 into a 3rd-and-6 in a drive that eventually resulted in a punt, and another was a pass interference in the end zone that gave the Hawkeyes a 1st-and-goal on the 8-yard line. Three plays later, Iowa scored a touchdown to go up 10-0.
In last year's loss to the Hawkeyes, Minnesota trailed 24-0 at the half and never recovered. The halftime deficit was a bit smaller Saturday (17-0), but the Gophers were once again left stunned at the half.
After believing they were a different 4-0 team than last year's 4-0 squad that lost to the Hawkeyes, it looked like more of the same in the first half. Minnesota's offense had sluggish first-half starts even in non-conference play this year. In the Big Ten, that won't fly.
"That's continually been a problem for us, being able to come out in the first quarter and really match intensity," Nelson said. "That's just something on a week-to-week basis that we really have to put more emphasis on."
For those who expected the Gophers to be another six-win, bowl-eligible team, Saturday's game against Iowa was a must-win. There's obviously no automatic win in the Big Ten, but a home game against the Hawkeyes after a 4-0 start was one that many circled on the schedule as a W.
Now, Minnesota's road only gets tougher. Kill's team will travel to face Michigan in the Big House next weekend before a bye week. After the break, it's another road trip, this time to the currently undefeated Northwestern Wildcats.
Last year's loss to Iowa started a downward spiral for the Gophers, who won just two games the rest of the year to barely sneak into a bowl game. After Saturday's crushing loss on homecoming, Minnesota has to make sure that doesn't happen again.
"It hurts. It's supposed to hurt. But we can't let it affect this next week," said safety Brock Vereen, who had an interception in the loss. "The Big Ten is a major conference, and every game is a big game. If we expect to go into Michigan and get the win there, it's going to take complete focus starting tomorrow. Let it hurt tonight, watch the film tomorrow, but Monday's a new week."
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