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Iowa vs. Michigan: Previewing the Big Ten Championship

Michigan embarrassed Iowa when these teams met in Indy two years ago. Can the Hawkeyes avoid a similar fate this time around?

NCAA Football: Big Ten Football Championship-Iowa vs Michigan Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago, Iowa and Michigan faced off against one another for the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis. The Hawkeyes were a flawed team that was overly reliant on its defense and special teams to score points and flip the field to win games, but Iowa had pulled off enough remarkable wins over the course of the season that an upset over the Wolverines was at least plausible. While Iowa kept things close through the first half, their self-imposed mistakes and Michigan’s advantage at key positions eventually took their toll on the Hawkeyes, resulting in a decisive 42-3 loss for the black and gold.

Iowa now finds itself in a similar situation, eying its first conference championship since 2004 and preparing to face off against an imposing Michigan team. This year’s Wolverine squad is even more formidable than the ones Iowa has played over the past two seasons, and the Hawkeyes have an uphill battle to beat arguably the best team in the country with several of its best players out due to injury. However, this improbable title shot is precisely the opportunity Iowa has fought for since last season’s Music City Bowl ended. Between a preseason gambling saga, injuries to their starting quarterback, most talented receivers, and best defensive player, the de facto firing of their offensive coordinator midway through the season, and one of the most controversial replay reviews in recent memory, the Hawkeyes had more than enough excuses to give up on the 2023 campaign and start planning for next season. Instead, the team banded together, found a way to pull of one impossible victory after another, and willed their way to a Big Ten West title. Michigan should expect to get Iowa’s best shot on Saturday; whether that will be enough to deny the Wolverines their third consecutive title remains to be seen.

Here are three key factors to watch that could determine whether Iowa can win the Big Ten Championship:

1. Can Iowa’s offense avoid a slow start?

The 2023 Hawkeye squad is built to win football games in a very specific way. Iowa’s offense may be ugly and inefficient, but the team is great at dragging its opponent into a mud fight where its experience playing in close, messy games give it the edge. The Hawkeyes may not have intended to win games this way when they sought out Cade McNamara, Erick All, and Kaleb Brown in the transfer portal, but injuries and poor execution on offense have forced them to revert to a style that has proven effective for the program in the past, even if it makes for a rough watch.

What Iowa is not built to do, however, is come back from behind to win games. While the Hawkeyes overcame 4th quarter deficits to beat Michigan State and Illinois (and Minnesota, even if the official final score says otherwise), Iowa only had to erase a one-score lead in each of these games and did so against teams with far inferior talent to the opponent they will face on Saturday. Michigan’s ability to lean on running back Blake Corum and its elite offensive line to run the ball and control the clock in the fourth quarter make them an extremely difficult team to mount a comeback against, to say nothing of the challenges Iowa’s offense would face if it becomes one-dimensional and is forced to abandon the running game. Michigan is loaded with pass rushers who can challenge both the edges and interior of Iowa’s offensive line, and the Wolverines rank 4th in the country in pass defense thanks to their shutdown cornerbacks in Will Johnson and Josh Wallace, as well as a versatile nickel back in Mike Sainristil who can line up all over the field and excels at creating chaos. If the Hawkeyes get down multiple scores, it is tough to imagine them finding a way to claw their way back into this game.

Iowa will need to start strong on offense if it hopes to pull off the upset, but that may be easier said than done. While Kirk Ferentz loves nothing more than choosing to take the ball to start the game, Iowa hardly ever scores touchdowns on their opening possessions, something the Hawks have not done since their season opener. Meanwhile, Michigan starts games as strongly as any team in the country, and has outscored its opponents 241-65 in first halves this season. If Iowa sputters early on offense, it may struggle to keep pace with an energized Michigan team that will likely come out overflowing with adrenaline thanks to the return of its head coach Jim Harbaugh from suspension.

In 2021, Iowa’s offense mounted a strong opening drive against Michigan and nearly connected on a perfectly scripted halfback pass from Gavin Williams that was a few inches away from producing a touchdown. After that trick play failed, the offense stalled out, missed a 33-yard field goal, and never really recovered. Whether Iowa has more trick plays in store for this game or manages to find more conventional ways to move the ball, an opening drive touchdown would be a significant sign that the Hawkeyes have come to play and can avoid getting left in the dust by the fast-starting Wolverines.

2. Can Iowa’s defense prevent big plays in the passing game?

Michigan has one of the best rushing attacks in college football. While the Wolverines don’t average as many explosive plays on the ground as some of their peers, Corum is good for four yards on basically every carry and has scored more rushing touchdowns this season (22) than any other player in the FBS has scored from scrimmage. The Wolverine ground attack is so efficient and difficult to stop that Michigan won on the road against Penn State without recording a single pass attempt in the second half.

However, Michigan’s passing game is what truly makes the Wolverine offense so dangerous. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy has been remarkably efficient with the ball, completing a conference-leading 74.3% of his passes this year and throwing only one interception in all of Big Ten play. When opposing defenses load up the box to stop the Michigan running game (which, by the way, they rarely can), McCarthy has been lethal in dissecting opposing defenses and generating big plays downfield to wide receivers Roman Wilson and Cornelius Johnson and tight end Colston Loveland. McCarthy has an absolute cannon for an arm, is mobile enough to avoid defenders and escape the pocket, and is as good at throwing accurately on the run as quarterback in college football. Most notably, McCarthy has a knack for making clutch plays in critical situations. His numbers on third down this season are astounding, as he is completing 72.6% of his passes for 664 yards and five touchdowns to only one interception. But don’t think McCarthy is making all of his hay on third-and-short; on plays of 3rd and 10 or longer, McCarthy has completed 81.3 2% of his passes for three touchdowns and no picks, to say nothing of his 4th down numbers (85.7% completion rate with two touchdowns) or his numerous successful scrambles for first downs.

Iowa’s defense will likely focus on slowing down the Michigan running game, and the Hawks have a decent shot at doing so after having limited opponents to 3.09 yards per carry and an FBS-low two rushing touchdowns this season. However, Iowa cannot afford to get burnt by McCarthy and the passing game if they do key in on the run. Freshman cornerback Deshaun Lee has had his struggles in coverage since being pressed into action after Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Cooper DeJean’s injury, giving up several catches to Illinois’ Isaiah Williams and allowing a 66-yard touchdown pass against Nebraska. If Lee struggles to hold up in coverage against Wilson and Johnson, Phil Parker may have to continue his trend of blitzing more than usual in hopes of overwhelming a Michigan line that has allowed the fewest sacks in the Big Ten this season (14). Whether Iowa can get home with its pass rush or sees its defensive backs rise to the occasion, the Hawkeyes must find a way to limit the damage McCarthy can do with his arm if they hope to win this game.

3. Can Iowa win on the margins?

Against a superior opponent with a more talented roster, Iowa’s best recipe for success involves consistent excellence in four key areas: performance on third down; limiting penalties; winning the turnover battle; and displaying excellence in the kicking game.

Not only will the Hawkeyes have to improve on their putrid third down conversion rate (31.03%), but they will have to find a way to stop Michigan from converting at their impressive rate of 49.64% if the defense hopes to stay rested throughout the game. Iowa also cannot afford to commit penalties against a Michigan team that averages fewer flags per game than any team in the country (2.9). Given Iowa’s difficulty sustaining drives and heavy reliance on opponent penalty yardage to gain advantageous field position, Iowa cannot afford for penalties to force them behind the sticks in this game. The turnover battle will also be key; while the Hawkeyes had success in creating takeaways against Nebraska last week, Michigan has committed only 7 turnovers this season while forcing 21, which could spell difficulty for an Iowa team with a -0.08 turnover margin. Finally, Iowa’s kicking game will need to excel for the Hawkeyes to have a chance at the upset. Drew Stevens had two kicks blocked last week and was benched for walk-on Marshall Meeder for the game-winning field goal attempt but must bounce back with a strong performance in a game where points will be hard to come by for the Hawkeyes. Tory Taylor may need the punting performance of his life to flip the field for the Hawkeyes, and will also need assistance from his special team gunners to down the ball as close to Michigan’s endzone as possible.

Even if Iowa performs well in all four of these areas, it still may not be enough to guarantee a victory over Michigan. However, championship teams tend to be ones who can limit their own mistakes and monopolize the hidden yardage that so often gets overlooked when analyzing football games. Iowa has been excellent at this for most of the season, and will need to be nearly perfect in this regard again to capture the conference crown.