IOWA CITY — On paper, Saturday’s Iowa-Minnesota football game has the look of a traditional knockdown, drag-out, black-and-blue Big Ten battle.
The Hawkeyes have thrived putting the ball in the hands of Mark Weisman and running behind an improving offensive line. Led by an average of 117 yards from the junior, Iowa has piled up 244 yards per game on the ground, the 24th-highest total in the country.
The Gophers’ defense, anchored by 6-foot-6, 311-pound Ra’Shede Hageman at nose guard, rates 21st nationally against the run, holding foes to 102.8 yards.
Minnesota’s rushing attack put the ball in the hands of first-time starter Mitch Leidner last week as top returning back Donnell Kirkwood missed his second straight start and the Gophers continued to find room to roam behind 6-6, 302-pound tackle Ben Lauer.
Minnesota ranks 13th in the country in rushing with its average of 282.3 yards per game. That will be challenged by an Iowa defense which is one of two in the country that has yet to surrender a rushing touchdown and ranks 12th nationally in stopping the run, limiting opponents to 91.5 yards per game on the ground.
“This is one of those games that should be a pretty hard-nosed football game, the type of game a lineman loves,’’ Iowa offensive guard Brett Van Sloten said.
But the 2:30 p.m. matchup for Floyd of Rosedale, the prized likeness of a pig which has been presented to the winner of this game since 1935, may not be entirely decided between the tackles.
“A part of me is pretty excited because it looks like the type of game where there should be more plays headed my way than I’ve seen against spread teams, but when you watch them on tape, they can throw the ball a bit, too,’’ Hawkeye linebacker James Morris said. “The quarterbacks and receivers are going to have something to say about the outcome and we have to be ready for that as well.’’
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said his team must be prepared for a Minnesota line that is more capable than the one the Hawkeyes dominated 31-13 last season at Kinnick Stadium.
Ferentz said third-year Golden Gophers coach Jerry Kill is building around the type of physical lines his teams have traditionally featured.
“They look stronger and more physical. They’ve been playing some young guys, not unlike a guy like (former Hawkeye) Bruce Nelson in 1999 that probably wasn’t quite ready, but guys who had the traits they were looking for,’’ Ferentz said. “Now, they’ve grown into a really good outfit and they are reaping the benefits.’’
Kill has added quickness in addition to strength. Junior college transfers Damien Wilson and De’Vondre Campbell start at linebacker positions and rank among the top four tacklers on Minnesota.
Entering the Iowa game at 4-0 for the second straight season to open Big Ten play, Kill views this game as the true test as to how much improvement the Golden Gophers have made.
“We’ve done well, but we’re playing a different style of football team this week. Being a defensive coordinator in this day and age is a hard job and we’re going to know a lot more about our team after we play Iowa,’’ Kill said. “This will be an old school-type game and we’ll see more downhill football teams now. I’m anxious to see how we respond.’’
The Hawkeyes (3-1) are anxious as well, looking to shed a six-game Big Ten losing streak.
“It doesn’t matter how we get it done — run, pass, whatever — as long as we come out with one more point,’’ running back Mark Weisman said. “It’s Big Ten time now and we need to take our game to that level to compete.’’