As Iowa prepares to take on #4 ranked Michigan, both teams enter the contest looking to exorcise demons from previous meetings. Iowa’s last game against Michigan came during the 2021 Big Ten Championship, a 42-3 drubbing which represented the worst margin of defeat Iowa has experienced since Kirk Ferentz’s first season in 1999. While Ferentz is not citing revenge as a motivating factor in this game, some Iowa players seem to be signing a different tune. Meanwhile, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh remains haunted by his last trip to Iowa City, a 14-13 Hawkeye victory which spoiled the #3 Wolverines’ undefeated season and submarined their playoff prospects.
Will either game serve as a template for tomorrow’s matchup? On one hand, many of the players who helped propel Michigan to its blowout championship win are still with the team, and a 39-point turnaround is an awfully tall order for a team to make in the course of one year. However, the Hawkeyes will undoubtedly benefit from playing in Kinnick Stadium, a venue which has been hostile to highly ranked visiting teams and to Harbaugh specifically, whose winless streak at Kinnick Stadium dates back to the 1980s. This matchup, which features the nation’s top scoring defense (Iowa) and #2 scoring offense (Michigan) will be an excellent test of just how dominant these two units are. In a battle that pits strength on strength, Iowa will be glad to be playing this game on its home turf as opposed to facing the Wolverines on another neutral field.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in this week’s game:
1. Which defense can best slow the opposing run game?
Michigan’s offense is built to run the ball and has lived up to that billing so far in 2022. Running back Blake Corum is off to scintillating start, racking up 478 yards on 7.5 yards per carry, leading the nation in rushing touchdowns with nine, and boasting one of the highest tackle breaking rates in college football. Corum is a talented back in his own right, but much of his production can also be attributed to the Wolverine offensive line, a unit that won last year’s Joe Moore Award and allowed Michigan ballcarriers to average a whopping 4.81 yards before contact in last week’s win over Michigan.
Meanwhile, Iowa appears to have jumpstarted its running game over the past two weeks. The Hawkeyes finally have a full compliment of running backs healthy, and the offensive line turned out its best run blocking performance of the season against Rutgers. Given Iowa’s immense struggles in the passing game and the significant injuries plaguing its wide receiver room, the ground game may be the Hawkeyes’ best shot to move the ball on Saturday. Michigan’s defense may further dictate a run-heavy attack. The Wolverines are allowing the sport’s 4th-fewest passing yards per game (135.8), are holding opposing quarterbacks to a mere 93.54 passer rating, and trail only Iowa (4.6) in yards per passing attempt allowed with 4.7.
With both teams eager to run the ball, which defense will be better positioned to slow the opposing ground game? Iowa’s defense has proven more effective against the run so far this year, allowing fewer yards per carry (2.21 vs. 3.16) and per game (73 vs. 109) than the Wolverines. However, the Hawkeyes must prove they can stop the Michigan run game without committing extra men to the box to avoid exposing its secondary to Michigan’s lethal deep passing game. Quarterback JJ McCarthy can and will attack downfield, and is averaging a nation-leading 11.6 yards per attempt while targeting deep threats like Roman Wilson, Cornelius Johnson, and Ronnie Bell. While Iowa’s secondary has been formidable this season, the Hawkeyes have occasionally allowed opposing wide receivers to beat them deep, something McCarthy is capable of exploiting. As important as it is for Iowa to slow Corum and the Wolverine ground game, the Hawkeyes must find a way to do so without leaving themselves vulnerable to being attacked downfield.
2. Can Iowa’s offense find a way to stay ahead of the chains?
Last year’s Big Ten Championship saw all Iowa’s underlying offensive problems bubble to the surface at once. Quarterback Spencer Petras was inaccurate and under constant pressure from Michigan’s elite edge rushers, the running game was inconsistent, and Iowa’s one shot at a big play (a halfback pass attempted on Iowa’s opening drive) narrowly missed, after which the Hawkeyes reverted to the predictable play calling fans have come to expect from the program. Many of the warts exposed by Michigan continue to plague Iowa’s offense in 2022, and there are serious concerns as to whether the Hawkeyes can consistently move the ball against one of the top defenses in the country.
Iowa’s offense must be productive on first and second down for the team to have a chance to keep pace with the Wolverines. Hawkeye drives have regularly stalled out when they get behind the chains, and negative plays or penalties on first or second down restrict Iowa’s ability to get creative with its play calling. Iowa’s tackles may not have to deal with Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo this season, but the Wolverines have racked up 11 sacks this season and boast a wealth of pass rushers who will pose a serious challenge to the Hawkeye line in obvious passing situations. Iowa has been the worst team in the conference on 3rd down this season with a conversion rate of only 28.3%, and Michigan has allowed conversions on just 29.31% of attempts. The more often Iowa can create 3rd-and-short opportunities, the better chance they have of sustaining drives. Given Iowa’s struggles to produce explosive plays (the Hawks have the nation’s 2nd fewest offensive plays of 10+ yards, and have played one more game than the only team ranked below them), they likely cannot rely on producing a few big gains to get them into scoring position. Unless Iowa can consistently win on first and second down, it could be another long day for the Hawkeye offense.
3. Can Iowa’s defense continue to create scoring opportunities?
Iowa’s defense has regularly been elite at producing turnovers, and the team’s seven takeaways over the past three games create plenty of optimism that this trend will continue in 2022. Turnovers only tell half the story however, as the Hawkeye defense has scored 18 points through four games, accounting for over a quarter of Iowa’s total scoring this season. Iowa’s offense relies on the defense to create short fields and easy scoring opportunities, and the Hawkeyes’ 120th-ranked scoring offense demands herculean efforts from the defense on a weekly basis to keep things competitive.
Can Iowa’s defense similarly answer the call this week, producing turnovers and possibly even points? Michigan has been extremely disciplined with the ball this season, committing only two turnovers through four games. However, the Wolverines’ game against Maryland featured several plays which better or luckier defenses might have converted into takeaways. McCarthy had two fumbles which were both recovered by Michigan and nearly gift-wrapped a goal line interception that might have had huge implications had the defender managed to come down with it. Iowa’s defense made several game-changing plays against Michigan in 2016, including Jaleel Johnson’s safety and Manny Rugamba’s 4th quarter interception in Iowa territory. If Michigan plays as loosely with the ball against Iowa as they did against Maryland, the Hawkeye defense could have an opportunity for a repeat performance of the last game played between these two teams in Kinnick Stadium.