MINNEAPOLIS With each win head coach Jerry Kill and the Gophers pile up, the buzz in Minnesota continues to grow. Now that the Gophers are 4-0, there have been talks about a possible bowl game, something that hasn't happened at Minnesota since 2009.
But by the same token, the Gophers' 4-0 record must be taken with a grain of salt. Those four wins came against nonconference opponents, including one Football Championship Subdivision school. Now, the schedule gets much tougher as Minnesota enters Big Ten play, beginning this Saturday on the road against Iowa.
Five things to watch as the Gophers open up conference play at 11 a.m. against the Hawkeyes.
1. How will sophomore quarterback Max Shortell handle his first road test of the year?
Shortell will be making his second start of the season in place of the injured MarQueis Gray, who suffered a high ankle sprain against Western Michigan. As expected, Gray has officially been ruled out of this game.
Shortell passed his first test of 2012 last weekend, throwing for 231 yards while not turning the ball over in a win against Syracuse. But now the sophomore must go on the road in the Big Ten. When he did that a year ago in his first college start, it didn't end well: He and the Gophers were routed, 58-0, by Michigan in Ann Arbor.
But that loss to the Wolverines was a long time ago for Shortell. He has since gained more game experience, and his teammates trust in what he can do on the field.
"Max is a very confident person," senior tight end John Rabe said. "If you ever talk to him, he's a very confident person. He's very confident in what he can do and we're really confident in what he can do. And he's been showing that these last two games. He's a great player, a great quarterback and we have all the confidence in the world in Max."
2. Minnesota has fared well against several pass-happy offenses. How well will it stop the run against Iowa?
Now that the Gophers have entered conference play, they'll see plenty of Big Ten-style, run-oriented offenses. Iowa is a prime example. Though the Hawkeyes had trouble running the ball early this season -- they picked up just 68 total rushing yards in a loss to Iowa State -- they seem to have found the answer in running back Mark Weisman.
The 6-foot, 225-pound sophomore gained 113 yards and three touchdowns against Northern Iowa in Week 3 and racked up 217 yards on 27 carries, including three scores, last weekend against Central Michigan.
So far, Minnesota's rushing defense has been middle-of-the-road when compared to that of other Big Ten teams. The Gophers have allowed 128.5 rushing yards per game, which is the fifth-most given up in the Big Ten. Now, that rushing defense will get its stiffest test so far this season.
"They look just like Iowa always looks like. Big, strong, physical, come downhill, hit you in the mouth," Kill said. "They mix it up on you, and they are who they are. They're very good, and we go to Iowa City to play on their turf. So we have our work cut out for us, but we're looking forward to the challenge."
3. Can the Gophers continue to win the turnover battle?
Through four games, Minnesota is plus-5 in turnover margin, tied with Ohio State for the best mark in the conference. The Gophers have recovered three fumbles and intercepted seven passes for a total of 10 turnovers, while giving the ball away only five times (three fumbles, two interceptions).
Iowa, meanwhile, has also done a decent job of protecting the ball. The Hawkeyes have lost just three turnovers (one fumble, two interceptions) and have forced six turnovers (three fumbles and three interceptions).
Protecting the football is always important, but it will be even more crucial for Minnesota to do so on the road. More often than not in the Big Ten, the team that wins the turnover battle wins the game. The Gophers need to keep their trend going of winning that battle.
"I don't think there's any question that turnovers are a big key," Kill said. "We got four turnovers on Saturday, and we had zero with a young quarterback. So you do that, you got a chance to win."
4. Will Iowa's passing game get on track against Minnesota's tough pass defense?
Through four games, the Hawkeyes have averaged 202 passing yards. But despite 128 pass attempts and 75 completions, Iowa has just one passing touchdown to speak of. And it didn't happen until last past weekend, when James Vandenberg hit Kevonte Martin-Manley for a 10-yard score.
Through four games, the Gophers have boasted one of the better pass defenses in the Big Ten. They've given up just 179 yards per game through the air, fourth-fewest in the conference. And opponents have thrown for only three touchdowns on 146 pass attempts. Minnesota has faced several teams that like to throw the ball, including Syracuse last weekend. But the Gophers' secondary has held its own.
Though Iowa's approach will likely be run-first on Saturday, the Hawkeyes will need Vandenberg to be effective to keep the Gophers' defense in check. So far, though, he hasn't been able to translate his 202 yards per game into many points.
5. Will Floyd make the trip back to Minnesota with the Gophers?
The winner of the annual game between Iowa and Minnesota is awarded a big bronze pig, Floyd of Rosedale. The Gophers have kept Floyd the past two seasons after beating Iowa at TCF Bank Stadium in consecutive years. It's the only one of the four rivalry trophies the Gophers play for that they currently own.
The Floyd of Rosedale trophy is added incentive for what is already a pretty good rivalry game. Floyd was in the Gophers' locker room and watching practice throughout the week leading up to Saturday's game. Players talk about it, and they know the importance of the trophy.
Now, can they back up the talk and bring Floyd back to Minnesota after the game?
"During camp, we actually had a whole meeting for the team where we just talked about rivalry games and the meaning of it and the importance of what it means to the state, the school and us players and alumni," Rabe said. "So we know there's going to be a lot of people watching. We're going to be ready to go."
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