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Big Ten Championship Preview: Iowa vs. Michigan

To win its first conference championship since 2004, Iowa must not only become the best version of itself, but also prove capable of beating Michigan at its own game.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Iowa at Michigan

One year ago, Iowa was scheduled to play Michigan during the Big Ten’s Champions Week in a contest that, while meaningful to the two teams’ fanbases, ultimately counted for nothing but pride. While the game never took place due to a COVID-19 outbreak on Michigan’s squad, the two programs are once again set to meet one another at the end of the conference season, this time with much higher stakes. On the line: the Big Ten Championship, something neither program has won since the two teams shared the conference title in 2004.

While much of college football has fallen in love with no-huddle offenses and spread passing attacks, Saturday’s Championship game will harken back to the Big Ten’s roots and feature two physical teams thoroughly committed to running the football and excelling on defense and special teams. Iowa fans who have not watched the Wolverines play this season will see a team with many schematic and ideological similarities to Iowa, albeit one whose players are more physically gifted. To win the Big Ten Championship, Iowa must not only become the best version of itself, but also prove capable of beating Michigan at its own game.

Here are a few key matchups to watch for in Saturday’s championship game:

1. Can Iowa’s offensive line hold up against Michigan’s defensive front?

Iowa’s last game against Michigan was a nightmare for the Hawkeye offensive line. Iowa’s front five surrendered eight sacks and thirteen tackles for loss, exposing huge weaknesses among the Hawkeyes’ young interior linemen. The Hawkeye offense ground to a halt in the face of unrelenting pressure from the Michigan defense, scoring only three points in one of the least watchable games Iowa has played in several years.

As much trouble as Iowa’s line had 2019, the 2021 Wolverines may present an even more daunting challenge. Michigan features two of the country’s best edge rushers in Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, the conference’s leading sack artists who have combined for 23 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss this season. Hutchinson’s 13 sacks have set a Michigan single season record, and the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year has proven virtually unblockable for most of 2021.

Iowa’s offensive line must play its best game of the season to prevent Michigan’s front seven from dismantling the Hawkeye offense, and tackles Mason Richman, Jack Plumb, and Nick DeJong will face particularly difficult challenges in trying to corral Hutchinson and Ojabo. Iowa’s tackles have been susceptible to edge rushers this season, and George Karlaftis almost single-handedly broke Iowa’s offense in the Hawkeyes’ loss to Purdue with his ability to consistently beat his man at the point of attack. Whether through double-teams, chipping from the backs and tight ends, or rollouts designed to extend the distance between Iowa’s quarterback and the Michigan pass rush, the Hawkeyes must scheme up a way to keep Spencer Petras (and Alex Padilla if he is pressed into duty) on their feet and give them enough time to find open receivers downfield.

Similarly, Iowa’s offensive line must prove that it can dominate the line of scrimmage to help the Hawkeyes establish the run, as getting Tyler Goodson going can help the Hawkeyes control the clock and move the chains while shielding Petras from the Wolverine pass rush. Goodson is hitting his stride at the right time; he ran for a career high 156 rushing yards against Nebraska last week and his 288 yards against the Huskers and the Illini mark the most productive two-game stretch of his career. Michigan’s defense has not particularly excelled at generating tackles for loss on running plays this year (they rank only 83rd in the country with 65 TFLs despite having impressive sack numbers), but the Iowa ground game has proven extremely susceptible to negative plays all season, particularly when running to the outside. Can Iowa find enough creative ways to use motion, jet sweeps, or even the Wildcat to prevent Michigan’s defense from swarming to Goodson every time he touches the ball and give the Hawkeye line a fighting chance to create running lanes?

If Michigan’s front seven proves too much for Iowa’s line, the Hawkeyes may have to fall back on the screen game. While Michigan’s defense has been susceptible to the screen at times (something which came back to bite them in their loss to Michigan State), Iowa has not gotten much production with these plays this year and have often flirted with disaster when trying to run them. Should Iowa need to rely heavily on screens and short passes to move the ball, they may need more exceptional plays like Keagan Johnson’s touchdown against Minnesota for the Hawkeyes to score enough points to stay in the game.

2. Can Iowa slow down the Michigan running game?

Iowa has an excellent run defense that has held opponents to only 2.97 yards per carry (8th fewest in the nation) and 105.83 yards per game (14th fewest in the nation) this season. However, they will face a tall task in shutting down a Michigan rushing attack that has piled up more yards (2,699) and touchdowns (35) than any team in the conference. Michigan features a thunder and lightning duo of running backs in the powerful Hassan Haskins (a player who is virtually never tackled behind the line of scrimmage) and the speedy Blake Corum (one of the most explosive runners in the nation) who have rushed for a combined 2,097 yards and 28 touchdowns between them. Haskins in particular is one of the hottest running backs in the country after piling up 169 rushing yards and five touchdowns in last week’s win over Ohio State.

Iowa simply cannot allow Michigan to run the ball at will. The Hawkeye defensive line must prove that it can win up front against a physical Michigan offensive line that imposed its will last week, while Iowa’s linebackers must consistently make tackles in space and avoid surrendering yards after contact. Seth Benson is something of a wildcard in this game; the junior linebacker has made huge plays in some of Iowa’s biggest wins this season but has also missed a few critical open field tackles and taken poor pursuit angles at times. If Benson and fellow linebackers Jack Campbell and Jestin Jacobs play up to their full potential, Iowa should be able to lean on its 4-3 defense and avoid getting gouged on the ground the way the Buckeyes were a week ago. However, if Iowa defends the run the way it did against Minnesota or during the first half of the Nebraska game, Michigan will dominate the time of possession and put incredible pressure on Iowa’s inefficient offense to score quickly and often if it hopes to stay in the game.

While Iowa may not be able to completely shut down the Wolverine rushing attack, it does need to slow it down enough to force Michigan to regularly challenge Iowa’s secondary through the air. Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara is a game manager, but he is exceptionally skilled at this role and has consistently made plays with his arm this season while throwing only three interceptions. Michigan’s ideal gameplan will involve keeping the ball on the ground as much as possible, but if Iowa can force McNamara into a situation where he needs to throw often in order to put points on the board, the Hawkeyes can create opportunities to add to their nation-leading total of 22 interceptions and stop the Wolverine offense in its tracks.

3. Can Iowa win the intangibles?

On paper, the 2021 Iowa team hardly looks capable of reaching a Big Ten Championship, as teams with the conference’s 10th best scoring offense and 13th best total offense are rarely expected to compete for let alone win the league. However, the Hawkeyes earned their 10-2 record on the strength of their intangibles, relying on excellent coaching, an opportunistic defense, and exceptional special teams play to help them win games they might have otherwise lost. Given Michigan’s talent surplus relative to Iowa (the Wolverines rank 15th in 247’s Team Talent Composite Rankings while the Hawkeyes come in at #43), those same intangibles may be the best chance Iowa has to earn a victory.

Turnovers, penalties, and special teams could very well decide the Big Ten Championship. Iowa is the least penalized team in the conference (they average four penalties per game for 36 yards), boast the conference’s best turnover margin of +13, lead the Big Ten in kickoff return yardage (729), and trail only Michigan in total punt return yards (316). If Iowa can minimize its mistakes, generate turnovers, and rely on its return game to achieve advantageous field position, they should be able to keep things close against the Wolverines. Iowa will also need big plays from its powerful kicker Caleb Shudak and excellent coffin corner punts from Tory Taylor (who will now have his top special teams gunner Terry Roberts on hand to down his kicks at the goal line) and could stand to continue its recent trend of blocking kicks that has emerged over the past three games.

However, the Wolverines are no slouches in these departments themselves. Michigan’s special teams are among the best in the nation, as the Wolverines allow the country’s fewest kickoff return yards per attempt (12.08), allow only 3.4 punt return yards per game, and have a kicker in Jake Moody who is a finalist for the Lou Groza Award. Furthermore, Michigan has lost the fewest turnovers in the Big Ten (9), and surrenders only seven more penalty yards per game than the Hawkeyes do. Iowa cannot expect Michigan to beat itself; the Hawkeyes will need to do it for them.

In a battle between two highly disciplined teams that excel at making plays on the margins, Iowa will need to prove that it truly has an advantage in the one area that has propelled them to success all season long: effort. If the Hawkeyes can keep the game competitive through four quarters, the team’s proven ability to find ways to win close games could ultimately make the difference between winning and losing the Big Ten Championship.