College football: Minnesota takes its undefeated record to Iowa

Rashod Bateman (13) of the Minnesota Gophers
Rashod Bateman (13) of the Minnesota Gophers celebrates his touchdown with teammate Tyler Johnson in the first quarter of a game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019 in Minneapolis.
Adam Bettcher | Getty Images

Minnesota proved it was for real by beating Penn State last weekend.

The next challenge for the seventh-ranked Golden Gophers (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten) will be to knock off yet another ranked opponent Saturday — in a stadium where they haven’t won in 20 years.

No. 23 Iowa (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) was the much safer pick in August to be atop the Big Ten West by the middle of November. But three losses to ranked teams by 14 combined points have left the Hawkeyes instead trying to spoil Minnesota’s perfect season.

Iowa has won 14 of its last 18 games against Minnesota and eight in a row at Kinnick Stadium dating to 1999, coach Kirk Ferentz’s first season in charge of the Hawkeyes. Iowa is also favored by three points, as some expect the Gophers to come crashing down after experiencing such an emotional high following that field-storming victory over the Nittany Lions.

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Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said he believes his team won’t head to Iowa City with a hangover after one of the biggest wins in school history, over then-No. 5 Penn State.

“When we win ... you would think we won the Super Bowl every time we win in our locker room after a game,” Fleck said. “Because I never want one to feel different than the other.”

Minnesota defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. intercepts a pass
Minnesota defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. (11) intercepts the ball intended for Penn State wide receiver Justin Shorter (6) during a game Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Minneapolis.
Stacy Bengs | AP

The message to stay focused seems to have gotten through.

“Trust me when I tell you, we are going to practice this week harder than we’ve ever practiced,” Minnesota defensive end Carter Coughlin said. “Because we’ve got our eyes fixed on the goal, which is going 1-0 in the Iowa season, and we’re going to take care of business.”

The Hawkeyes are 4-1 in their last five at home against top-10 opponents in games played after Oct. 30, including a 55-24 blowout of Ohio State in 2017 that kept the Buckeyes out of the playoff that year. Iowa has one of the best defenses in the country, ranking fourth in scoring defense (11.7 points allowed per game), but the Hawkeyes don’t run the ball very well.

They’re 95th in rushing yards per game and 92nd with just 3.87 yards a carry. Iowa is also coming off a tough 24-22 loss at Wisconsin in which it failed to convert a game-tying, two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter.

“We can't be looking backward,” Ferentz said. “We have to be looking out the front window here and doing what we can do to get ready for a really tough opponent. It's a discipline, I think, that takes mental toughness for people to do that.”

The Gophers lead the Big Ten with 14 interceptions (with at least four games to go), the most for the program since it had 15 picks in 2008. Half of them this year have come from Antoine Winfield Jr., the fourth-year sophomore whose previous two seasons were cut short by injuries. Winfield, who also leads the team with 57 tackles, has already matched the program record for interceptions with Jeff Wright, who had seven in 1970. He’s tied for the second-most in the country, too, after picking off Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford twice in the red zone.

“Our secondary has played so much better than they ever have since I've been here,” Fleck said.

Kickoff for Saturday's game is at 3 p.m.