As unbelievable as it may sound, the Iowa Hawkeyes are the 2023 Big Ten West champions and are one victory away from winning the conferene for the first time since 2004. Iowa had to overcome a seemingly insurmountable set of hurdles to claim the division crown: a preseason gambling scandal; long-term injuries to several of the team’s key players; and the de facto firing of offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz with four games remaining in the regular season. While any of these challenges might have been enough to derail the Hawkeyes, their ability to weather this adversity has set them up with an opportunity to achieve the goals the team set out with at the start of the season.
Iowa’s opponent in the Big Ten Championship will be the winner of the Michigan vs. Ohio State game, though both opponents will pose a significant challenge to the Hawkeyes. Both teams have defenses of similar caliber to Iowa’s; while the Hawkeyes rank third in the FBS in scoring defense and are allowing only 12.4 points per game, Michigan (9.0) and Ohio State (9.3) rank first and second in that metric respectively. Meanwhile, Iowa is scoring 18.5 points per game; only nine teams are putting up fewer points than the Hawkeyes. Given that Michigan and Ohio State have held much, MUCH better offenses than Iowa’s to fewer than ten points per game, it is difficult to imagine Iowa being able to score in double digits against one of these elite defenses. Unlike Iowa, however, Michigan and Ohio State are both averaging over 30 points per game (38.3 for the Wolverines and 33.6 for the Buckeyes), so it is also no guarantee that the Iowa defense can shut down the opposing offense the way the have for almost the entirety of the year. Add in the fact that both Michigan and Ohio State each defeated a Penn State squad that humiliated Iowa in a 31-0 beatdown in Week 4, and there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about Iowa’s chances of beating either team in Indianapolis.
What would it take for the Hawkeyes to pull out victory over Michigan or Ohio State and win the Stagg Championship Trophy? Obviously, the Hawkeyes getting all of their injured players back and adopting a completely new offensive system would give Iowa a strong chance of victory, but is there anything in the realm of reality that would help the team claim victory over their heavily favored opponents? As unlikely as an Iowa victory in the championship game may be, there are a few scenarios which would help improve the Hawkeye’s chances to claim the conference crown.
1. Dominate the turnover battle. Iowa has won nine games so far this year despite posting a -3 turnover margin, but it’s difficult to imagine the Hawkeyes being able to get away with giving the ball up against teams that can score as often and efficiently as the Buckeyes and Wolverines can. Iowa’s four turnovers against Penn State created easy scoring opportunities for the Nittany Lions and forced the Hawkeye defense to stay on the field for 97 plays, and Iowa cannot afford to give their opponents the same luxury in this game. Similarly, Iowa must seize every opportunity to create turnovers their opponents give them. Iowa had a whopping 13 pass breakups against Illinois, but no interceptions despite several catchable balls being thrown in the direction of the Hawkeye defense. If the Buckeyes or Wolverines make reckless plays with the football against the Hawkeyes, Iowa must capitalize to create short fields for their offense and opportunities for their defense to score outright.
2. Empty the playbook on offense. Iowa’s offense has shown improvement over the past two weeks, especially in their 22-point, 402-yard performance against a Rutgers team that is ranked in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense. However, given Iowa’s athletic, skill, and consistency deficit on offense relative to their potential championship game opponents, it is tough to believe Iowa can run their normal offense and still move the ball and score with any regularity. While the Hawkeyes cannot change their entire offensive scheme between now and December 2nd, Iowa can use this remaining time to develop creative plays to potentially catch their opponents off guard. Iowa’s offense is nothing if not predictable, but they did manage to fool Michigan’s defense with a halfback pass play in the championship game two years ago that was a few inches away from resulting in a touchdown. Whatever gadget plays or creative wrinkles Brian Ferentz has in the dusty recesses of his playbook, the championship game is the time to put them into action for Iowa to have any hope of moving the ball. Similarly, if LeVar Woods can dial up a fake field goal or punt play that can extend a drive or steal points from their opponents, it may be worth the Hawkeyes sacrificing an opportunity for a Tory Taylor coffin corner punt or a Drew Stevens field goal to try and shift the momentum of the game. Playing the field position game has gotten Iowa to the championship game, but the Hawkeyes will likely have to roll the dice successfully a few times if they hope to have a real shot at winning it.
3. Ride the Kalebs as much as possible. Running back Kaleb Johnson and wide receiver Kaleb Brown have emerged as two of Iowa’s most dynamic players on offense, though both have been used inconsistently throughout the season. Johnson has led the team in yards per carry each of the past two games but has been consistently out-touched by Leshon Williams and had a similar carry split to Jaziun Patterson, and was not used at all in Iowa’s win over Northwestern. While Williams and Patterson are good backs who deserve a role in the Hawkeye offense, Johnson remains Iowa’s most capable big-play threat on the ground and needs to be in for more than the 15 snaps he saw against Illinois for Iowa to have a chance to keep pace with the Buckeyes or Wolverines. Similarly, Kaleb Brown’s usage cannot tail off in the championship game and should ideally be at or above the six touches he has averaged over Iowa’s past two contests. Whether Brown is catching the ball, taking handoff on a jet sweep, or even receiving a direct snap (something Iowa has occasionally experimented with using their more dynamic skill players), Brown has shown that he has the athleticism to move the chains and create big plays for an Iowa offense that is sorely lacking in explosiveness. The more opportunities Iowa can scheme up to get the Kalebs the ball in space, the better their chances of moving the ball against the elite defense they will face in Indy.
4. Get healthy and stay healthy. While Cade McNamara, Erick All, Luke Lachey, and Cooper DeJean aren’t expected to make it back in time for the conference championship game, Iowa does have several key players dealing with injuries who could improve their team’s chances for victory if they were at full strength, including wide receiver Diante Vines, cornerback TJ Hall, and most of the offensive line. Given that Iowa has clinched the West, there is a case to be made for the Hawkeyes resting all their players who are dealing with lingering injuries in Friday’s game against Nebraska to give them more time to heal in preparation for the conference championship, even if doing so decreases Iowa’s chances for victory. Kirk Ferentz is unlikely to adopt this strategy, especially with an opportunity to claim revenge on Nebraska and retrieve the Heroes Trophy on the line. However, given that winning the Big Ten remains the team’s ultimate goal, Iowa would be wise to do everything it can to minimize the chances of injury to key contributors this week and give the players that are currently banged up an opportunity to recover if at all possible. If Iowa can get a comfortable lead over Nebraska early, don’t be surprised to see Kirk put the backups in earlier than fans are used to seeing.
5. Find a way to take the pressure off Iowa’s offensive tackles. While the performance of Mason Richman and Gennings Dunker has been an improvement over the tackle play from recent seasons, Iowa has still struggled throughout much of the year at protecting the quarterback from edge rushers. Penn State defensive end Chop Robinson only recorded one sack against Iowa this season, but he practically lived in the Hawkeye backfield and created so much pressure with his pass rush that Cade McNamara was unable to go through his progressions and find open receivers downfield. Both Michigan and Ohio State have defensive ends and outside linebackers who could similarly challenge the pass protection skills of Iowa’s tackles, which would make things complicated for quarterback Deacon Hill given his lack of mobility and tendency to hold onto the ball too long in the pocket. Unless Iowa’s tackles can consistently hold up against edge pressure, Iowa may need to use running backs and tight ends to assist in pass protection more often than they are used to or continue to roll Deacon Hill out of the pocket the way they have successfully done in recent weeks.
6. Shore up the secondary. The loss of Cooper DeJean deprived Iowa of a lockdown cornerback with the speed and athleticism to run step-for-step with the likes of Roman Wilson or Marvin Harrison Jr. and the cover skills to force opposing quarterbacks to make elite throws to complete routine passes against him. With DeJean injured, junior Jermari Harris, freshman Deshaun Lee, and sophomore TJ Hall will have to prove they can lock down the type of top-flight receivers they will face when matching up against Ohio State or Michigan. Harris has had his share of struggles in coverage this year but had arguably his best game as a Hawkeye against Illinois, breaking up four passes and doing his part to hold a solid receiving corps in check. Deshaun Lee, meanwhile, was regularly targeted by Illinois and gave up several catches to Isaiah Williams, a player who is of similar caliber to the receivers he will be asked to cover in Indianapolis. Whether Lee and TJ Hall can learn from their past struggles covering top-tier wideouts (Hall’s struggles covering Nebraska’s Trey Palmer last year as a freshman are well documented) and help contain the opposing passing games will play a huge role in determining whether Iowa has a chance to keep this game competitive. Both young players have the talent to be future stars in this defense, and Iowa needs Phil Parker to bring that potential out of them sooner rather than later.
7. Hit the opposing quarterback early and often (albeit legally). Injuries are the worst part of the game of football, and nobody should ever hope for or intentionally try to inflict serious damage on an opposing player. It is also true that Iowa’s chances of winning the Big Ten championship would increase dramatically if its defense managed to either knock the opposing starting quarterback out of the game or hit him hard enough to make him wary of standing in the pocket long enough to continue taking damage from Iowa’s defense. This is not a prescriptive gameplan, and it would be neither strategic nor moral for Iowa to try to incapacitate the opposing quarterback. But in listing scenarios that could potentially lead to an Iowa victory, it would also be disingenuous not to include it.
8. Benefiting from inside information. No, I don’t mean that Iowa should film its potential championship opponents and try to steal their signals (though if Michigan’s allegations against the Buckeyes are true, Ohio State may be willing to volunteer their intel on the Wolverines should they end up losing next weekend). However, Iowa has players on their roster who suited up for both Michigan and Ohio State last year and could potentially give the Hawkeyes some insights about what to expect from their opponents. This is particularly true of Michigan, whose former starting quarterback and tight end are currently members of the Iowa football team. Any insights these players can provide about their former team’s tendencies, vulnerabilities, or ways to get under their opponent’s skin could prove beneficial to Iowa in a game where the Hawkeyes can use all the help they can get. Cade McNamara and Erick All may not be able to suit up due to their injuries, but perhaps they can find a way to give their teammates an edge in this game should the Wolverines manage to punch their ticket to Indianapolis?
The chances of Iowa beating either Michigan or Ohio State and winning the Big Ten title are extremely low, and all eight of the scenarios listed above coming to fruition still might not be enough to bring home the championship. However, if Iowa’s bizarre path to Indianapolis has shown the college football world anything, it’s that this Hawkeye squad is capable of achievements that seem far beyond the realm or reason. In a campaign full of statistical anomalies and unexplainable results, why not one more shocking twist to confound the pundits and make the entire sport shake their head and wonder what kind of black magic Kirk Ferentz is practicing in Iowa City to keep this team winning the way they are? At this point, doing something unexplainable may be the most predictable thing Iowa’s football team can do.