On paper, Iowa’s upcoming contest against Michigan should not be particularly close. Not only are the 11-time national champion Wolverines the winningest program in college football history, but a glance at the rosters of both teams suggests that their advantage over the Hawkeyes should remain very much intact. Look at the recruiting disparity between the two squads over the past four years (per 247):
Four Years of Michigan Recruiting
Four Years of Iowa Recruiting
Michigan averages nearly a top-ten recruiting class every year and has landed as many five-star recruits over the past four years as the Hawkeyes have four-stars. This recruiting gap is significant and should provide Michigan with talent and depth advantages far too large for Iowa to overcome.
But there’s a reason the games are played on the field and not on paper. While Iowa has looked better than most pundits expected en route to a 4-0 start, Michigan was humiliated in a 35-14 road loss against Big Ten West frontrunner Wisconsin and narrowly avoided losing at home to Army in double overtime. The Wolverines rediscovered their mojo in a dominant 52-0 win over a hapless Rutgers team, but now find their hopes of a Big Ten championship on the line as the red-hot Hawkeyes roll into Ann Arbor. Between an increasingly discontent fanbase, head coach Jim Harbaugh’s fraught history against the Hawkeyes, and the animosity many of the Wolverine faithful likely feel towards Oliver Martin for ditching the maize & blue for the black & gold, Iowa fans can be sure of one thing heading into this game; whatever Michigan’s “best shot,” is, Iowa’s going to get it on Saturday.
Here are a few key factors to watch heading into this week’s game:
1. Can Iowa’s back seven contain Michigan’s wide receivers?
The launch of Michigan’s new “speed in space” offense has been uneven at best. Aside from the Rutgers game, the Wolverines have struggled to move the ball with any consistency, ranking 81st in the country in total offense. For much of the season, Michigan has appeared caught between two offensive systems but unable to master either of them; neither Harbaugh nor quarterback Shea Patterson seem particularly at ease in a pass-happy spread offense, but Michigan lacks the experience at running back and consistency along the offensive line to fall back on the power run game that has buoyed them through much of the Harbaugh era. To make matters worse, Michigan has been afflicted with a serious case of fumbleitis which has resulted in them putting the ball on the ground a whopping 12 times this season.
However, if there’s one offensive position group where Michigan’s recruiting success has really translated to the field, it’s at wide receiver. Nico Collins is a 6-4 jump ball machine, Tarik Black is a freakish athlete who runs crisp routes downfield, and sophomore Ronnie Bell, the lone three-star recruit among the bunch, appears to be having a breakout season. It’s no coincidence that Michigan’s best offensive output this season came when junior Donovan Peoples-Jones, arguably the most athletic Wolverine and one of the toughest covers in college football, was finally near full strength again. If Michigan’s offense is built around the concept of “speed in space,” this unit provides the bulk of the speed.
Michigan’s receivers will provide an exceptionally tough matchup for Iowa’s defensive backs. Michigan native Michael Ojemudia has been fantastic through four games and will need to continue his strong play to contain the likes of Peoples-Jones. Getting Julius Brents back from injury this week could be a major boon for the secondary, as his 6’3” frame will allow him to cover Michigan’s rangy receivers such as Collins and Black. Freshmen D.J. Johnson and Jermari Harris both acquitted themselves well against Middle Tennessee State, and will need to minimize their mental mistakes to avoid giving Shae Patterson open targets downfield. Safeties Geno Stone, Jack Koerner, and Kaevon Merriweather will be relied on to assist in coverage and could serve as x-factors in this game.
Finally, Hawkeye fans have reason to be concerned about what Michigan’s receivers are capable of when matched up against Iowa’s linebackers. Even with Brents and Merriweather back, it’s unclear that defensive coordinator Phil Parker is comfortable enough with Iowa’s depth in the secondary to work in many 4-2-5 looks, which will likely result in linebackers being pressed into the occasional coverage duties. Shea Patterson has been erratic at times and his shaky offensive line has made his job more difficult this season (Michigan has surrendered nine sacks already this year), but he still has the arm talent to make every throw his offense requires of him. If Patterson can identify these mismatches when they occur, Iowa’s linebackers will need to make more plays like the one below to avoid being torched by Michigan’s talented receiving corps.
2. Can Iowa establish the run early
As poorly as Michigan’s offense played against Wisconsin, their most shocking deficiency was their inability to stop the run. Although run defense has long been the hallmark of coordinator Don Brown’s unit, the Wolverines were repeatedly gashed on the ground by Jonathan Taylor and company, surrendering 359 yards with an average of over six yards-per-carry. While the Hawkeyes have yet to surrender a rushing touchdown this season, the Michigan has already given up nine through four games.
Iowa’s running game seems to be entering a rhythm coming into Ann Arbor. The Hawkeyes gutted Middle Tennessee for 351 yards and four touchdowns last week and have identified three capable running backs with complimentary styles in Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young, and the electric Tyler Goodson.
Even more encouraging is the strength of Iowa’s offensive line which has looked sensational even amidst a slew of injuries and should be bolstered by the return of left tackle Alaric Jackson, arguably Iowa’s best run blocker last season. Michigan’s defense front was physically outmatched by the size, strength, and aggression of the Badgers, and if any team in the conference is built to replicate that type of performance in the trenches, it’s Iowa.
Still, Michigan has plenty of capable players in its front seven despite its occasional early season struggles. Jordan Glasgow and Khaleke Hudson are built like linebackers but have the speed of defensive backs, allowing them to engage the ballcarrier before they can reach the second level of the defense. Furthermore, Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson are as athletic as they are disruptive and are capable of wreaking havoc from their positions along the defensive line. Michigan doesn’t get many tackles behind the line (side note, who would have guessed that Iowa would be dead last in the country in TFLs through four games?!), but if they can limit Iowa’s production on the ground in early downs, they can make the Hawkeye offense one-dimensional and put substantially more pressure on quarterback Nate Stanley to throw into the teeth of an athletic Wolverine secondary.
3. Can Iowa play mistake-free football in a tough road environment?
Through four games, Iowa’s 2019 team has embodied the disciplined approach preached by its head coach Kirk Ferentz. The Hawkeyes give up the nation’s second-lowest number of penalty yards per game which shows a lack of self-inflicted mistakes, have the nation’s third-longest average time of possession per-game which shows the ability to consistently execute on both sides of the ball, and have only committed one turnover this season on an ill-advised lateral attempt by a fullback in the season opener. From what we’ve seen so far, if Iowa loses a game this year, it will be because their opponent beat them, not because they beat themselves.
A lot can change in a hostile environment, however, and the Big House is about as hostile as they come. No disrespect to Iowa State whose fans were practically rabid by the time kickoff rolled around, but Iowa’s current players have yet to experience a setting quite like the 107,000 seat Michigan Stadium, and its recent forays into similar environments (Wisconsin in 2017, Penn State in 2016 and 2018) ended rather poorly.
Michigan may have a talent advantage on paper, but Iowa can narrow that gap by playing harder and smarter than their opponent, both of which they have been quite successful at during their seven-game win streak which extends into last year. If Iowa’s senior leadership such as Nate Stanley, Kristian Welch, and Michael Ojemudia can drown out the noise and avoid being phased by the endless sea of maize & blue surrounding them on all sides, the Hawkeyes have a chance to emerge from Ann Arbor victorious and as legitimate contenders in the Big Ten West.