IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Critical mistakes and inconsistency haunted Iowa the first month of the season, resulting in two losses by a combined four points.
The Hawkeyes started to look more like themselves in the Big Ten opener. Iowa continuously fed its bruising back behind a tough line to setup play-action passes — and even a trick play — in a 31-13 win over Minnesota on Saturday in the schools’ Big Ten opener.
Mark Weisman ran for 177 yards, 155 in the first half, to give the Hawkeyes possession of the Floyd of Rosedale bronze pig trophy.
“It’s the offensive line,” Weisman said. “They open up those holes back there. They’re doing all that dirty work out there. They’re the ones grinding out there, doing the work and making it easy.”
Christian Kirksey’s 68-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter sealed the win for Iowa (3-2), which bounced back from last week’s disappointing 32-31 loss to Central Michigan.
Minnesota (4-1) was off to its best start since 2008, but couldn’t get anything going on offense Saturday. Max Shortell threw three interceptions and the Gophers managed only 75 yards in the first half.
The Hawkeyes scored three touchdowns during a six-minute span of the second quarter to jump out to a 24-0 halftime lead thanks to Weisman’s big runs.
Weisman, a fullback-turned-tailback, wasn’t expected to play much of a role in Iowa’s offense this season.
But that tough, downhill running style has produced big results for the Hawkeyes in the past — Shonn Green won the Doak Walker Award in 2008 and now-transferred Marcus Coker rushed for 1,384 yards as a freshman last season.
Weisman, a walk-on who transferred to Iowa after one semester at Air Force, was inserted into the lineup because of injuries. Weisman has responded with 507 yards and seven touchdowns the last three games.
“After two, you start thinking this guy might not be bad,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “After three games, I think a lot of us are starting to think, maybe this guy is a running back. His fullback days may be numbered. He may be retiring from that spot.”
Weisman punched in an 8-yard run on the first play of the second quarter to start Iowa’s second-quarter scoring binge.
Then the Gophers went three-and-out, and Iowa’s normally conventional offense pulled a surprise with a flea-flicker on the first play of the drive. Weisman pitched the ball back to James Vandenberg, and the senior quarterback found a wide-open Jordan Cotton for a 47-yard score.
“Mark was running the ball hard, and we saw that the safety was down in the box,” Cotton said. “So it was the perfect play call.”
Minnesota was forced to punt again and Micah Hyde’s 27-yard punt return gave Iowa the ball at midfield. Six plays later, Vandenberg’s 1-yard dive into the end zone finished off the drive.
Minnesota won the previous two meetings with Iowa, rallying from behind in both games. The Gophers couldn’t muster a comeback this time.
Minnesota lost a fumble to open the second half. Shortell responded with a 79-yard drive that ended in a 9-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Fruechte, cutting the Hawkeyes’ lead to 24-7 midway through the third quarter.
The Gophers had three more possessions without Iowa scoring, but Minnesota punted once and Shortell threw two interceptions — the second returned for a TD by Kirksey after the linebacker made a nice play to catch the ball.
“I saw the receiver come hard inside, so I just jumped for the ball,” Kirksey said. “Instantly, I was thinking about making a play for the defense. It was either setup a score for the offense, or just score.”
Shortell, a sophomore who has stepped in for the injured MarQueis Gray, connected with 10 different receivers on Saturday. He completed only four passes in the first half, but finished 20 of 33 for 197 yards and two touchdowns.
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill defended the quarterback after the game, saying the entire team’s youth and inexperience showed in front of a sold-out Kinnick Stadium. The Gophers haven’t won in Iowa City since 1999.
“Did the kids handle it as well as they could have?” Kill asked. “Evidently not, or we would have played better. But I give Iowa credit for that. They came out and executed better than we did.”
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