The spotlight has shone on the Michigan football team all season, and this Saturday, the bright lights of Kinnick Stadium will, too.
As prevalent as the Wolverines have been all season, they have played only one night game, Oct. 8 at Rutgers, in one of the most lopsided games in college football this year. This week, Michigan gets a true prime-time treatment with an 8 p.m. kickoff at Iowa (3-3 Big Ten, 5-4 overall) on ABC’s Saturday Night Football.
The eyes of many have been on the third-ranked Wolverines (6-0, 9-0) since September, but now, in the final quarter of the season, the pressure ramps up even more. Michigan will again enter the game as a heavy favorite, and its opponent will be searching for an upset.
In this series, the Hawkeyes have had the edge recently. They have won four of the past five meetings, the first two against Rich Rodriguez’s struggling Michigan teams. They also handed Brady Hoke’s first team one of its two losses in 2011 in Iowa City, and they knocked off the Wolverines again in 2013. The teams have not played since.
Here’s what to watch for when they battle again Saturday:
1. How does Michigan start the game?
The Wolverines have been dominant for almost all 60 minutes in their games this season, but they have struggled at times in the first series or two. On offense, they started the season with an interception on their first play, and punted in under two minutes on each of their next four first drives. They did not score on an opening series until Week 7, though they have done so in every week since.
On defense, Michigan has been stifling for the most part, but it has cracked in the earlygoing a couple of times. Against Michigan State, LJ Scott and the Spartans’ ground game rolled over the Wolverines in eight plays covering 80 yards, and even last week against Maryland, the Terrapins possessed the ball for almost four minutes.
Michigan has given up just 11 offensive touchdowns all season, but two have come on the first drive. Iowa’s best chance to win Saturday is to score a third, gain some momentum and keep it. If the Hawkeyes can’t establish themselves early, the Wolverines can coast.
2. What’s Iowa’s game plan?
In the past two weeks, Michigan State and Maryland have at least given future Michigan opponents a few tips on how to move the ball against the Wolverines. The Spartans tried the ground game, as Scott carried 22 times for 139 of the team’s 217 rushing yards. Then, Maryland had some success through the air, passing for 289 yards last week.
Both of those strategies involved getting playmakers into space on outside runs or flat passes to try to avoid the teeth of Michigan’s defense. It’ll be interesting to see which route Iowa takes. The Hawkeyes don’t have many of the open-field threats that the past two opponents had — they rely more on winning the battle up front and pounding the ball between the tackles, a tactic the Wolverines typically stifle.
Either way, that matchup may decide the game. Iowa is 5-0 this season when rushing for at least 100 yards and 0-4 when missing that mark. In the past two weeks, the Hawkeyes have totaled just 113 yards on the ground and lost to Wisconsin and Penn State. Iowa also ranks 104th in the country in third-down conversions — a bad recipe against Michigan’s top-ranked defense — so if the Hawkeyes can’t figure out a way to make those situations more manageable with runs on first and second down, they’ll struggle.
3. Can Wilton Speight have his fourth straight best game of the season?
After last week’s rout of Maryland, Speight is officially rolling. In just the first half Saturday, he was 13-for-16 for 292 yards and two touchdowns. He has also somewhat quietly put together a touchdown-interception ratio of 15-to-3. Because of their defense, the Wolverines haven’t needed him to do a ton. That could change in the final quarter of the season as Michigan travels to Iowa and Ohio State and hosts Indiana in between.
This might be Speight’s toughest test yet, too. The Hawkeyes rank just 62nd in the country in passing defense, but they have been consistent except for a 49-35 win at Purdue last month in which they gave up 458 yards through the air. Iowa should bring its best performance for a home night game at Kinnick Stadium.
Michigan’s schedule has been kind to Speight so far, with only one trip outside the state in the first nine games. That was a road night game, but it was also a 78-0 victory at Rutgers in which Speight played only the first half and was never tested.
4. Which Detroit star shines brighter?
For just the second time in their college careers, Michigan senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis and Iowa senior cornerback Desmond King will face off on the field. But the history between the two goes back to their high school days, when Lewis starred at Detroit Cass Tech and King led Detroit Crockett and then East English Village Prep.
Both players earned All-American honors last season, and both saw the field as freshmen when the Wolverines and Hawkeyes last played in 2013. King edged Lewis on the stat sheet (three tackles and two pass breakups versus two tackles) and on the scoreboard (Iowa won, 24-21). Since then, both have had much more success, becoming two of the best cornerbacks in the nation.
Lewis, who often talks about his playing days at Cass Tech, still remembers their earlier meetings, such as Crockett’s two victories in the matchup in 2011. He and King will have plenty of opportunities to make the final statement in the last collegiate edition of their rivalry Saturday.