Three months ago, this weekend’s matchup looked like it would be a tough test for the Michigan football team. Several pundits predicted that the now-third-ranked Wolverines would be a contender this season, but most pointed to the upcoming matchup with Iowa as one of the season’s biggest challenges.
After all, the Hawkeyes won the Big Ten West last year and fell just a field goal short of a likely berth in the College Football Playoff, and Michigan hasn’t won in Iowa City since 2005.
The experts were right about the Wolverines (6-0 Big Ten, 9-0 overall), but not about Iowa. The Hawkeyes have stumbled to a 5-4 record, including a 7-point loss to Northwestern, a 27-point drubbing by Penn State and a 23-21 upset by FCS opponent North Dakota State.
Michigan is favored by more than 20 points, and the talk about a close game feels like a distant memory. Here’s how the matchup looks on paper given what we know now:
Michigan rush offense vs. Iowa rush defense
After weeks of holding just a slight edge over the other three backs in the Wolverines’ four-man rotation, senior running back De’Veon Smith exploded for 114 yards and three touchdowns last week against Maryland. Though his performance could earn him most of the carries again this week, the rest of Michigan’s backs continue to perform well enough to garner attention — redshirt junior Ty Isaac ripped off a 53-yard gain near the end of the game Saturday, and freshman Chris Evans and sophomore Karan Higdon (a former Iowa committ) are averaging 8.0 and 7.2 yards per carry, respectively.
The Hawkeyes’ run defense, meanwhile, doesn’t look like it has many answers these days. Their flaws were first exposed by a 239-yard performance on the ground by North Dakota State early in the season, and the 72nd-best run defense in the country hasn’t recovered since. Most recently, Nittany Lion running back Saquon Barkley amassed 207 total yards of offense in a 41-14 Penn State victory last week.
Michigan pass offense vs. Iowa pass defense
Iowa’s secondary, led by senior All-American cornerback Desmond King, still poses a challenge for the Wolverines in theory, but the numbers haven’t been there this season. Much like the Wolverines’ Jourdan Lewis, King hasn’t been targeted very often, and his teammates aren’t holding up their end. The low point of the season for the secondary actually came in a victory, when the Hawkeyes allowed lowly Purdue to throw for 458 yards and five touchdowns. Iowa hasn’t been taking the ball away at all, either — its five interceptions are tied for 101st in the FBS. Last year, King alone had eight.
The Hawkeyes’ struggles are coming at the perfect time for Michigan’s passing attack, which has looked better by the week. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight had his best performance of the season last week, throwing for 362 yards and two touchdowns. Fifth-year senior receiver Amara Darboh and senior tight end Jake Butt have been steady all year, and fifth-year senior receiver Jehu Chesson showed signs of returning to his old form with 112 yards and a touchdown last week.
Iowa rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
All season long, Iowa has gone as far as its ground game can take it. The Hawkeyes are 5-0 in games where they rush for over 100 yards and 0-4 in games where they are held under that mark. Their two rotating backs, junior Akrum Wadley and senior LeShun Daniels Jr., have lit up opponents like Purdue and Minnesota, but they combined for just 46 yards against the Nittany Lions last week. In part due to predictable playcalling, Iowa has been unable to get anything going on the ground against above-average defenses.
The Wolverines’ defense would certainly fit in that category, ranking 10th in the country in rush yards allowed per game. That number worsened, though, thanks to Michigan State running back LJ Scott, who accounted for 139 of the Spartans’ 217 rushing yards against Michigan two weeks ago. The Wolverines also had some trouble with Maryland’s running backs on screen passes last week, allowing a few big plays.
If the Hawkeyes’ offense continues to tip its hand, though, Michigan’s front seven has too much experience and talent not to take advantage of it.
Iowa pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard is one of the more talented quarterbacks in the Big Ten, but he could be in for a long night Saturday. He has been sacked 24 times this season, more frequently than all but eight quarterbacks in the FBS. The Wolverines’ defense has a proven ability to get to quarterbacks — just three of nine starting quarterbacks have played complete games against Michigan so far this season.
Even if Beathard has enough time to get his throws off, there aren’t a lot of great places to put them. Lewis hasn’t been targeted very often in the secondary this season, and for good reason — he’s allowed just four catches and has two interceptions. His counterpart on the other side, senior Channing Stribling, has been nearly as effective, allowing just 11 catches and snagging three picks of his own.
The Hawkeyes don’t appear to have the weapons to attack shut-down corners — go-to receiver Riley McCarron is their only player with over 300 receiving yards.
Of all the phases of the game, this is the most likely chance for Iowa to make an impact. The Hawkeyes’ special teams unit ranks eighth in the country in special teams efficiency, according to ESPN, while Michigan clocks in at 13th. The Wolverines have the luxury of using Jabrill Peppers on returns, but Desmond King is almost just as electric for the Hawkeyes. He’s averaging 29.2 yards a kick return, with a long of 77 yards, and according to Michigan tight ends/assistant special teams coach Jay Harbaugh, he has a knack for making the first defender miss.
As for the kicking units, the two teams are essentially even. The Wolverines’ senior kicker/punter, Kenny Allen, has shaken off his early-season struggles, riding six straight made field goals and averaging 42.1 yards a punt. Iowa kicker Keith Duncan hasn’t had much work this season, but he is 6-for-7 on field goal attempts, while long-distance specialist Miguel Rescinos is 1-for-2 on two 40-plus-yard kicks.
With just three regular-season games left and an undefeated record, Michigan has everything to lose. Iowa, though, has already fallen well short of its preseason expectations — the best it can hope for now is to win one of its last three games to secure bowl eligibility.
Despite their success, the Wolverines haven’t faced much adversity on the road this season. They won at Rutgers and Michigan State, but both stadiums featured large contingents of Michigan fans and struggling opponents who couldn’t take advantage on home turf.
Kinnick Stadium remains a tough place to play, especially for Michigan over the past decade. In 2009, the Wolverines , then 4-1, lost a two-point game at night to the Hawkeyes, and their season spun out of control from there. Even in 2011 — the year Michigan went 11-2 and won the Sugar Bowl — the Wolverines suffered an eight-point loss at Iowa.
The Hawkeyes clearly aren’t the team some thought they might be at the beginning of the year, but this has “trap game” written all over it if Michigan isn’t careful.
Prediction: Michigan 38, Iowa 10