- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Iowa and Minnesota play for a pig. That feels wholly appropriate this year, as Saturday’s game in Minneapolis will be decided down in the muck of the trenches.
Floyd of Rosedale would feel right at home with all the hog wrestling that’s likely to occur when two physical teams that feature a run-first-second-and-third mentality get after it.
“The two programs have very similar philosophies in what they’re trying to do,” Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. “This certainly will be an old-fashioned football game, and I like that.”
The Gophers (4-0) and Hawkeyes (3-1) have gotten back to their roots as tough, line-driven programs this season, and so far that has paid off with positive results. Consider some of these stats:
Iowa is attempting 54.5 rush attempts per game, sixth most in the FBS. Minnesota is averaging 49.3 runs per contest, which ranks 16th nationally. The Gophers ran 67 times or 353 yards last week against San Jose State, the most by the school since 2005. The Hawkeyes have produced at least 200 rushing yards in four straight games for the first time since 1997.
Minnesota has completed just 33 passes this season and is throwing the ball just 25.9 percent of the time. Iowa is running the ball on 65.7 percent of its downs.
Iowa ranks 12th nationally in rushing defense at 91.5 yards allowed per game, while Minnesota is 21st at 102.7.
The similarities are not a coincidence. One offseason when he was the coach at Southern Illinois, Kill sent several of his staff members on a visit to Iowa to pick up some pointers.
“They play physical, downhill football, and that’s what we really would like to be,” he said.
Both teams have long put a premium on the line of scrimmage, given their location and the types of players in their backyards. But things haven’t always gone according to plan.
Ferentz’s best teams have usually dominated up front, but a lack of playmakers on the defensive line and several injuries on the offensive line kept that from happening during last season’s dismal 4-8 campaign. The O-line struggles were particularly surprising for a team that has produced 13 NFL draft picks from that position in the last decade. So far this season, the line has been the team’s strength.
“A lot of great linemen have come through this program, and I’ve had the good fortune to play with some of them,” left tackle Brandon Scherff told ESPN.com. “That’s the identity, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re starting to get there, but we’ve got a long ways to go and a lot to prove.”
The Hawkeyes’ physical style is embodied by running back Mark Weisman, the 235-pound bull-rushing former fullback who’s nearly impossible to bring down on first contact.
“He’s not going to stop running until he hits the ground,” Scherff said. “We love seeing linebackers get run over by him. I think that really energizes us.”
The Iowa defensive line has also shown improvement, especially against the run. Defensive tackle Carl Davis told ESPN.com that he’d rate the line’s play as only a six out of 10 because of a lack of pass rush and tackles for loss. But he said the group embraced a physical, tough style this offseason while knocking heads with the offensive line in practice, and he thinks that helped both sides.
“It feels good when I see our offensive front pushing another team five yards downfield,” Davis said. “I saw [center] Austin Blythe 20 yards down the field last week blocking for [quarterback] Jake Rudock. That was good to see. If we can control the line of scrimmage in the Big Ten, we should win a lot of games.”
Kill has needed his first three years in Minnesota to build up the size and strength of the roster. The Gophers boast a proud tradition of offensive linemen but haven’t had a first-team all-league performer since 2005.
“Being from Minnesota, that’s what I came here for and that’s what we’re establishing,” Gophers right tackle Josh Campion told ESPN.com. “If you go back to the 1960s, or our last Big Ten title in 1967, we always had great linemen. I remember growing up and watching those teams with [running backs Laurence] Maroney and [Marion] Barber.”
Minnesota began to establish a power running game in last season’s bowl game against Texas Tech and has carried that over with a veteran offensive line and a pair of quarterbacks in Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner who have used their legs more often than their arms.
“They're big and physical offensively,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I think they're over 310 pounds on average [on the O-line], and we're hardly that kind of size. So it's going to be a real test for us.”
The Gophers’ defensive front has also been pretty salty this season, led by massive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman and defensive end Theiren Cockran, who’s tied for the league lead in sacks. The defense allowed only 47 rushing yards last week against San Jose State in an effort defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys called as good as any in his three-year tenure.
Claeys also likes how his young linebacker crew is developing and said the defense is in much better shape this season to hang in against the best Big Ten teams. But he also remembers how Iowa manhandled his team in last year’s 31-13 win in Iowa City.
“They don’t try to trick anybody,” Claeys said. “They bring that ball downhill and do a great job with their zone blocking scheme. This will be good for us to see how much we’ve improved from a year ago.”
Players and coaches from both sides have been quick to point out this week that they have much work left to become physically imposing teams. Neither has played a difficult schedule or beaten anyone resembling a Top 25 team yet.
But they are both off to strong starts largely because of their line play. And there’s no better way to judge how far they’ve come than by squaring off against one another and seeing who squeals first.
“That’s Big Ten football right there,” Scherff said. “We both want to be physical in the run game, and we want to make the opponent quit.”
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