Three weeks ago, the Michigan football team traveled to East Lansing to face Michigan State — the toughest team on the schedule, according to Michigan coach Brady Hoke.
On Saturday, the 13th-ranked Wolverines (2-1 Big Ten, 7-1 overall) travel to Kinnick Stadium to again face the toughest team on their schedule. But this time it’s Iowa.
The Hawkeyes (2-2, 5-3) sit one game behind Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska in the Big Ten Legends division, but are unbeaten in Iowa City this season.
“They play awfully well and they’re a very well-coached football team and have been for many, many years,” Hoke said. “It will be the most physical game to this point for us as a team.”
The Wolverines’ only loss of the season came on the road against the Spartans, a game that was plagued with personal fouls and, well, toughness of all sorts.
Still, for Hoke, that game wasn’t the toughest. This one will be.
“Oh, yeah,” Hoke said. “(The Hawkeyes) always have been (the toughest), in my opinion. I always thought they were well-coached and physical. It’s a fun week. As a defensive line coach, this is fun. I love this.”
Added fifth-year senior captain David Molk: “They’re old-school football. It’s hit-‘em, smash-mouth football. That’s what they play. Always have.”
Michigan has dropped its past two decisions with Iowa and hasn’t won in Iowa City since 2005.
Seeming to ignore the Hawkeyes’ defensive rankings — they are in the bottom half of the Big Ten in both rushing and passing yards allowed — Hoke has emphasized Iowa’s tenacious, exemplar defense to his players.
“Iowa is one of those teams that’s not going to change anything they do in preparation for you, especially offensively,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen. “They’re going to do the same thing they’ve been doing for, I don’t know how many years.”
Saturday’s matchup with Iowa also marks the beginning of Michigan’s November slate of games. The Wolverines’ final month consists of consecutive games against the Hawkeyes, Illinois, No. 9 Nebraska and Ohio State. Those four teams currently have a combined record of 23-10.
This is exactly the competition that Hoke wants in November.
“It’s going to be a great challenge for us,” Hoke said. “When you get in November, you play for championships in the Big Ten conference, and that’s kind of how it’s been for many years.”
Michigan is certainly within striking distance of the conference championship, sitting in a three-way tie atop the division but the Wolverines’ roster has slowly begun to deteriorate.
Sophomore safety Carvin Johnson left the team this week, becoming the sixth player to depart this fall.
Perhaps more importantly, several everyday starters are questionable entering the weekend. Redshirt junior safety Jordan Kovacs missed last Saturday’s game with a knee injury, while redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and redshirt junior offensive guard Ricky Barnum have both been slowed by nagging ankle injuries.
Hoke gave no final indication as to whether any of the three would play, but he also didn’t rule any player out. Even with the depleted roster, junior quarterback Denard Robinson is healthy, and that gives Michigan a chance in any game.
“I don’t know if our blueprint is ever going to be different (in November),” Hoke said. “We want to run the football. We want to be able to possess the football. We want to take care of the football.
“I can’t tell you that’s going to be any different, but it’s how you have to improve on a daily basis so you can play your best football through the month.”
At 7-1 to begin November, Michigan fans won’t be demanding anything different.