Can the Gophers coach finally beat Iowa and bring home Floyd of Rosedale?

Maxx Williams extended his 6-4 frame, grabbed the football and had his left toe trail as he dived out of bounds. The tight end’s spectacular catch was the defining moment of the Gophers’ 51-14 drubbing against Iowa in 2014, a game that saw Minnesota players frolic to the end and then partied with Floyd of Rosedale.

Since Williams’ catch, the Gophers have watched Iowa hoist that bronze pig statue seven straight times, including after a 35-7 smash in 2020 when Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz called for three straight timeouts after Gophers coach PJ Fleck had used one at 19 seconds hoping to avoid a shutout. “We thought we’d take Floyd and leave the timeouts here,” Ferentz said afterwards.

Payback, as the saying goes, can be a… difficult experience.

On Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium, the Gophers will look to end Iowa’s seven-year headlock against Floyd in a Big Ten West title-impacting game. Seven times since 2014 the Gophers have attempted to snatch the pig, and seven times they have failed, sometimes in excruciating fashion, other times in explosions.

The Gophers (7-3) and Hawkeyes (6-4) are two of four teams tied for first place in the West with 4-3 Big Ten records, along with Purdue and Illinois. For Minnesota, there’s a way to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game: beat Iowa and Wisconsin and let Purdue and Illinois lose a game each.

For the Hawkeyes, the route to Indy has fewer potholes: beat the Gophers and Nebraska and lose a game to Illinois, who play No. 3 Michigan on Saturday.

“Our players know how important this game is, what this game means to our program, what it means to our state,” said Fleck, who is 5-0 with Iowa.

The importance of the game hasn’t translated into recent victories for the Gophers, who have been denied the West’s conference title game spot twice in Fleck’s tenure for losing to the Hawkeyes: 23-19 in 2019 and 27-22 last year . They will try to turn the script around on Saturday.

“This is a really special game, it’s a historic rivalry,” said Mariano Sori-Marin, Gophers linebacker.

To break Floyd from Iowa’s power, the gophers can do the following:

Take the lead early

Being first to bat has served the Hawkeyes well in their seven-game winning streak against the Gophers. In every game, Iowa has scored first, and five times they have had touchdowns on their first possession of the game. In the series, they have outplayed Minnesota 51-13 in the first quarter and 106-46 in the first half.

“We’ve talked about it, but it’s nothing special that you have to do,” Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said. ”

The Gophers have conceded first-possession touchdowns to Purdue, Illinois and Nebraska this season. They lost to the Boilermakers and Fighting Illini and needed a comeback to beat the Cornhuskers. Playing from behind is not the Gophers’ forte.

Avoid giving up big plays

Last year, Rossi’s defense with 35 fewest plays of 20 yards or more was given up to take the national lead. Two of these, however, were particularly costly in losing in Iowa. Charlie Jones cleared for a 72-yard TD reception, and Keagan Johnson spun out of a couple of tackles for a 27-yard TD catch that made it 24-16. Those big plays overcame a Gophers offensive that defeated Iowa 409-277 and held the ball for 40-02.

Four other Iowa wins in the series featured scoring plays of 45 yards or longer.

“We have to do everything in our power to eliminate explosive plays,” Rossi said. “We must do everything in our power to create takeaways.”

Don’t feed the Iowa Defense

The Iowa offense ranks 130th out of 131 FBS teams with an average of 251.1 yards per game. So how do the Hawkeyes keep winning? Their defense and special teams are excellent.

In last week’s 10-24 win over Wisconsin, Iowa mustered just 146 yards of offense but got an interception return for a TD and a 41-yard punt return to pick up another hit from Cooper DeJean.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen that in college football, where defense gets the most points all year,” Fleck said. “…Your defense scores just as much as an offense.”

The Hawkeyes are down 18 takeaways and 48 points in turnover this season. Drew Stevens is 13-to-15 on field goals. Tory Taylor has 21 punts from 50 yards or longer.

Be patient but aggressive

Gophers running back Mohamed Ibrahim has rushed 104 times for 465 yards and eight TDs in his last three games. However, the Gophers require a certain balance. Presumptive starting quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis needs to be sharper than he was when he went 7-for-13 for 64 yards against Northwestern.

“How do you react when it’s an incompletion that you know you’re going to hit 19 times out of 20?” asked Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. “Does that get you in a bit of a clam? Or do you sit down and smile and say, ‘Wow, I’m going to beat the next 19.’ This is how the quarterback is supposed to react when he misses a throw.”

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