Even as an oddsmaker, Grant Bowman isn’t the type to let his biases get in the way.
“It’s a pivotal game,” Bowman said. “Iowa is playing as well as any team in the Big Ten. If you look at what they’ve done statistically and their record, they definitely should be the favorites. Their offense is putting up some amazing numbers.”
As if the Wolverines battling the Hawkeyes for first place and keeping their Rose Bowl hopes alive isn’t motivation enough for Michigan’s defensive line, Bowman and the highly-touted front four now also have a chance to prove that some of the preseason accolades given to them by several analysts were deserved.
And they’ll have to do it against arguably the best offensive line in college football.
“It’s the type of challenge you live for,” said fellow defensive lineman Shawn Lazarus.
Coming into the season, most publications wrote that Michigan would live or die by the performance of its “vaunted” defense. Analysts compared the defense to the 1997 group that carried the Wolverines to a national title. And Michigan’s defensive line, with two All-Big Ten caliber defensive ends in Dan Rumishek and Shantee Orr, was a main reason why.
But seven games into the season, Bowman and Lazarus admit they are disappointed that the line has “underachieved at times,” has not put sufficient pressure on the quarterback and has given up more rushing yards than last year.
“Coming into the season we were expected to be the rock of the team, not just the defense but also the defensive line,” Bowman said. “And so we had really high expectations as a group and as individuals. I don’t know if we have played bad, but we haven’t at times excelled the way we wanted to in stopping the run sometimes.”
Currently the Wolverines are fourth in the conference in rush defense – allowing more than 130 yards per game on the ground – and seventh in the Big Ten in total defense. Michigan is also tied for last in red zone defense, as opponents are 7-for-7 inside the 20-yard line.
Such numbers aren’t too conducive to shutting down an Iowa offense that not only averages more than 38 points per game, but also has achieved nearly perfect balance. The Hawkeyes have rushed for 1,748 yards and 15 touchdowns while passing for 1,703 yards and 15 touchdowns. With a scrambling quarterback in Brad Banks and an elusive tailback in Fred Russell, the assignment of containing the Hawkeyes’ offense may seem just as inviting as a root canal.
“I’m not looking forward to it,” Bowman said. “There is nothing worse than having to chase a guy sideline to sideline, getting tired, and then huddling up for the next play. Running quarterbacks are really hard to play against. You can have great coverage, get a great rush then they side-step somebody and still run for 10 yards, even though you executed defense perfectly. It’s an extra dimension that is really tough to defend against.”
And it’s a dimension that Michigan has had problems with all season, as the Wolverines had a rough time containing Notre Dame quarterback Carlysle Holiday as well as Purdue’s Brandon Kirsch – who rushed 15 times for 81 yards last Saturday.
But the Wolverines will have two of their main cogs on the defensive line back to help chase down the pesky Hawkeyes. Both Orr, who returned to action last week after missing two games with an undisclosed knee injury, and defensive tackle Norman Heuer are expected to play together for the first time since Sept. 21. The presence of both lineman should give the Wolverines’ defensive line more confidence, and help them put more pressure on Banks and Co. Just 13 of Michigan’s 27 sacks this year have come from its front four, as the Wolverines have relied on several stunts and safety blitzes.
“You know those guys are going to do their thing and know you won’t have to make all the plays,” said Rumishek. “Because the past couple of games you almost had to play cautious and feel like you couldn’t screw up or you’d put a lot of stress on the rest of the defense.”