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Minnesota defense shows improvement ahead of clash with Hawkeyes

BY MOLLY IRENE OLMSTEAD | SEPTEMBER 28, 2012 6:30 AM

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Minnesota leads the Big Ten in interceptions and is ninth nationally (seven teams are tied for second, with Minnesota right under them).

The Gopher defense is good. Maybe better than good. The team is 4-0 on the season, Iowa, 2-2.
The Minnesota defense presents a force much speedier than anything the Hawkeyes have seen this season, and although the Gophers won’t have quarterback MarQueis Gray, who isn’t healthy, Minnesota still has the potential to out-run the Hawkeyes.

“They’re faster, more athletic, and they’re just playing faster,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “They seem to be built with speed in mind.  At all positions — not just several, but all positions. And they’re opportunistic.”

The Iowa offense hasn’t been as opportunistic, however. The Hawkeyes have struggled to convert on third downs, completing just 1-of-8 opportunities against Central Michigan on Sept. 22. The Black and Gold have only been successful in 35 percent of third third-down situations on the season.

The Hawkeyes’ offensive shakiness on third down is contrasted against fullback Mark Weisman’s running prowess as interim running back. The sophomore was the team’s only rusher against Central Michigan and racked up 215 net yards.

“We put together some drives where you don’t even have third downs, and then we get drives where we get a little bit behind in the chains and get those third-and-11s, third-and-10s,” quarterback James Vandenberg said. “[What we have to work on is] just consistency on our every-down basis.”

Iowa’s consistency has been a point of emphasis throughout the week of practice, but the Hawkeyes understand how crucial it will be for the offense to continue making steady progress throughout the entire game.

“It’s just something you have to do; every good team does it,” Weisman said. “You have to be consistent; it’s just one of those things,”

The inconsistent Iowa offense will clash with a smooth Gopher defense. Minnesota standouts such as defensive end D.L. Wilhite, defensive back Derrick Wells, and linebacker Aaron Hill have caught the attention of the Hawkeyes while they study film in preparation for the Floyd of Rosedale showdown.

“They do a lot of good things with their coverage, mixing things up and making it look like one thing when it’s really not,” Vandenberg said. “They get after the passer, and they’ve got some guys who can really cover the back end.”

The Gophers’ rushing defense has outshone the pass defense so far this season. Minnesota has held its opponents to 27 first downs running and to only 36 percent of the total offense.

Iowa’s running game, however, was exactly half of Iowa’s offense against Central Michigan — but for the Hawkeyes, that’s a good thing.

Before Weisman came into the primary running role, the Hawkeyes rushed for only 36 percent of their total offense. In the 9-6 loss to Iowa State, Iowa only ran 68 of its 304 total yards (22 percent).

“The total balance has been really positive for our offense,” Vandenberg said. “We want to be balanced; we need to be balanced. That’s kind of how we’re built; that’s kind of how we’ve always been built. We know how important that is to get a defense on their heels when you can run the ball.”

Even though the Minnesota defense is fast, the Hawkeyes have to be faster on offense, Wiesman said. The offense will be successful if it can remain equal between its two strategies.

“They’re a fast team, they run the ball hard, and they’re a physical team, too,” Weisman said. “We just have to come out, ready to play, to meet their intensity.”


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