The term “must-win” shouldn’t be thrown around lightly in the beginning of October when talking about the college football season. That said, it isn’t exactly a term that should be viewed as an overreaction when analyzing certain teams.
The Iowa Hawkeyes are one of those teams, sitting at 3-2 on the season and 1-1 on the Big Ten. Iowa is fresh off a 38-31 loss to an underwhelming Northwestern squad and just a few weeks removed from a devastating and historic upset loss to North Dakota State — at Kinnick Stadium no less.
Iowa was supposed to be a Big Ten contender this season but five weeks in, the Hawkeyes have been a disappointment. The team has been average, if not plain bad. What were supposed to be strengths of Iowa football have been anything but. Weaknesses, especially on offense, have been especially glaring.
It’s not going to get any easier for Iowa, with matchups against Top 25 opponents Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska all still ahead on the schedule. And that doesn’t even take into account this weekend’s game against Minnesota, one of Iowa’s biggest rivals.
The Hawkeyes have to travel to Minneapolis this weekend for a noon (ET) kickoff with the (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten) Golden Gophers. The Floyd of Rosedale trophy is on the line — a rivalry trophy that Iowa has won three of the last four seasons and 11 of the past 15 meetings — but perhaps so is Iowa’s season, at least in terms of relevancy
A win over Iowa would leapfrog the Gophers up the divisonal standings and likely relegate the Hawkeyes to “pretender” status when it comes to the divisional race. Iowa may already be in the pretender category, but that’s what makes this weekend’s game so big. At the very least, the Hawkeyes can win themselves some Big Ten momentum and stay within earshot of the top of the division standings.
There are no guaranteed wins on the rest of Iowa’s schedule, and we’ve seen that there’s no such thing anyhow with this team in 2016. The loss to NDSU proved that.
A loss to Minnesota would be Iowa’s second-straight and it would all but end any hopes for this season. In fact, it may even put Iowa’s bowl game eligibility in question. Not counting the Top 25 opponents above, Iowa also has to play on the road at Purdue, Penn State and Illinois. Road games, especially in the Big Ten, are never a given.
Which brings up this weekend.
There is some positive history on Iowa’s side, and that’s something Kirk Ferentz and his staff are going to really have to hammer home to their team before the contest. They need to get some good mojo flowing, so why not bring up the fact that Iowa has won seven consecutive road game (which is the fourth longest active streak in college football) and five-straight trophy rivalry games?
The Hawkeyes have traditionally played strong under pressure and in tough environments as of late, so that’s a well that Ferentz should go to when trying to instill some confidence back into his team.
With that said, even coming off a 29-26 loss at Penn State, the Golden Gophers are no slouch — especially offensively. Minnesota is ranked fifth in scoring offense (36.3 points per game) in the Big Ten, fourth in rushing offense (228.25 yards per game) and sixth in total offense (439.8 yards per game) so far this season.
Rushing the football has been a strength for the Gophers, with sophomore running back Rodney Smith leading the way with 402 yards and five touchdowns on 82 carries. Both junior running back Kobe McCrary and sophomore running back Shannon Brooks have found the end zone twice respectively, and senior quarterback Mitch Leidner is a threat both through the air and with his feet.
So far this season, Leidner has completed 73-of-116 passes for 840 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 7.2 yards per attempt. He has thrown two interceptions, but perhaps he has made up for those with his production on the ground. The massive 6-foot-4, 230 pound quarterback has rushed 33 times for 141 yards and three touchdowns, averaging a steady 4.27 yards per run.
“He’s a big, physical player,” Ferentz said of Leidner. “He can run throw and he’s a leader. That’s everything you want in a quarterback.”
It’s going to be a physical contest and Iowa’s defense is going to especially be tested. If there is one thing the Hawkeyes can test offensively it’s Minnesota’s passing defense — which is currently last in the Big Ten, giving up 255.3 yards per game through the air (including nine touchdowns) — but even that’s not a given for the Hawkeyes. Iowa is ranked 12th in Big Ten passing offense so far this season, and the Hawkeyes are without leading receiver Matt VandeBerg, who’s seeking a medical redshirt after a broken foot.
Basically, nothing is going to come easy for Iowa, but that’s been the story of this season for the Hawkeyes. On the road against a major rival with the pressure of a terrible season looming overhead, Ferentz and his team need to pull out a victory. They need to stop the proverbial bleeding.
If not, this season could end up on life support.