The only real consensus among pundits and fans about Saturday’s game against No. 14 Iowa is that it will be very, very revealing.
In all likelihood, No. 19 Michigan’s true capability as a team is somewhere between the one that got run out of Camp Randall Stadium on Sept. 21 and the one that shut out Rutgers last Saturday at the Big House. But where on that spectrum it is will determine the direction of its season. Can the Wolverines achieve the goals they’ve spent the last two weeks saying are still attainable? Or is this a team ticketed for 7-5?
Michigan under Jim Harbaugh has historically been very good in these types of games. Excluding Ohio State, a demon all its own, the Wolverines are 5-1 against ranked teams at home since 2015, and the one loss came on a fluke last-second play against Michigan State in 2015. But at the same time, Iowa runs a very similar scheme to Wisconsin, just without the Heisman candidate running back, and we all saw how it went against the Badgers.
Here are some things to keep a look out for as Michigan tries to get its season back on track:
Can Michigan score first?
The stat you’ve probably heard by now is that in the first three games of the Wolverines’ season, they fumbled the ball away on the first drive. But more concerning is that in each of those games, the Wolverines subsequently allowed the opponent to march down the field and score a touchdown.
Senior tight end Nick Eubanks said after the Wisconsin game that it was a mental issue, that allowing those early touchdowns deflated the team. In that light, the importance of the Wolverines scoring first cannot be overstated.
If Michigan can find the end zone early, it could give them a boost of confidence that may well translate to the rest of the game. But if the defense falters early, brace yourselves.
How does Shea Patterson look?
Through the season’s early goings, the senior quarterback was some combination of injured and bad, but he bounced back in a major way against the Scarlet Knights, completing 17 of 23 passes for 276 yards and a touchdown. Perhaps more significantly, Patterson ran for three more scores — and that was in just three quarters of work.
The Wolverines seemed to scheme the offense a little differently last Saturday, letting Patterson run around and improvise, making plays with his arm and his feet. Patterson isn’t one of those guys who can just stand in the pocket and let it rip.
And for Patterson more than other players, the Rutgers game likely did mean something, because the way he was utilized was similar to last year — when Patterson was objectively a good quarterback.
Especially with backup Dylan McCaffrey doubtful with a concussion, Michigan needs Shea Patterson to play like 2018 Shea Patterson, like last week’s Shea Patterson, if it wants to beat a good team like the Hawkeyes.
Can the defensive line hold up?
In Madison, the Wolverines’ defensive line was pushed around by a mass of beefy linemen. The bad news for Michigan is that Iowa also has a stout offensive line led by two All-Big Ten tackles in Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs, both of whom are over 300 pounds. That’s a tough assignment for the Wolverines’ undersized front seven.
If there’s any positive for Michigan, it’s that the defensive line that played against Wisconsin isn’t likely to be the same one that goes against the Hawkeyes. The 282-pound senior Michael Dwumfour was out with an injury two weeks ago, but he should play on Saturday and bring some much-needed size at defensive tackle. That also means the Wolverines likely have no need to play Ben Mason, a former fullback, at the position. Mason, just 270 pounds, struggled in the early games and appeared on offense against the Badgers, a potential sign that the experiment there is over.
Defensive ends Kwity Paye, Aidan Hutchinson and Michael Danna have looked good in the early going, and if they can get to Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley, it could cover up for mistakes elsewhere — but there’s only so much the pass rush can do to bail out everyone else.
Can Oliver Martin make noise on the other sideline?
Martin, who hails from Coralville, Iowa — just northwest of Iowa City — never quite found a fit at Michigan. He was buried on the depth chart by classmates Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and Nico Collins and had just 11 catches in 2018. In that light, it’s not hard to see why Martin transferred to his hometown school in the offseason. He was granted immediate eligibility.
Martin hasn’t lit the world on fire with the Hawkeyes — he has just five receptions for 28 yards on the season — but he has a clearer path to more playing time at Iowa than he did with the Wolverines.
There don’t seem to be hard feelings regarding Martin’s departure, but multiple players mentioned it would be weird seeing him in black and gold.
“You’ve gotta make the decision that’s best for you,” said junior wide receiver Nico Collins. “I wasn’t mad about it. … He felt like that’s what he needed to do to chase his goal and he made that decision. But we’re still supportive.”
Can Michigan contain AJ Epenesa?
Google Iowa pass-rusher AJ Epensa, and one of the top results is an article that poses the question, “The next JJ Watt?”
Epenesa is a star. He led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks in 2018 and was named First Team All-Big Ten by the media. It’ll be up to the offensive line — which has had its fair share of struggles lately — to stop him.
Fifth-year senior offensive tackle Jon Runyan looked shaky in his return from injury against Wisconsin, but with a few more games to get back into form, Runyan could still find a groove.
So, what will be the final score?
It’s Daily tradition to do a prediction at the end of these things. But you know what, I’m not going to do that, because, to be honest, I have no idea what will happen Saturday.
I buy that Michigan will look better than in Madison, with key players back healthy and a friendlier home environment against a slightly worse team. But it seems just as likely that the Wolverines win at home like they always have, as it does that they’ll allow an early touchdown and completely fall apart.
Using the highly scientific transitive property of football, Michigan beat Rutgers by 52 and Middle Tennessee by 19, while Iowa beat the Scarlet Knights by 30 and the Blue Raiders by 45. Summing up those margins of victory, we get……the Hawkeyes by four. It’s as good as any guess I could come up with.
One thing is sure, though. Whatever happens Saturday, it’ll be a lot easier to predict the subsequent games.