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Behind Enemy Lines: Q&A with Black Heart Gold Pants

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In this superb Q&A, BHGP’s Max Brekke discusses Iowa’s decline from 2015 to 2016, declares whether Desmond King or Jourdan Lewis is the better corner, previews the Michigan-Iowa matchup, and provides a score prediction.

Pittsburgh v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Sitting at 9-0 and No. 3 in the CFP rankings, Michigan is in prime position to have an unforgettable season. However, the Wolverines have not used many airline miles to put themselves in that position. Through nine games, they have played in just two on the road and left the state of Michigan just once (at Rutgers). The Mitten State has been very cordial towards them, and they bulldozed the fence surrounding the Garden State to receive some fine hospitality in a historic 78-0 win over the Scarlet Knights.

However, Michigan may finally sense some real in-game hostility this weekend when the Wolverines travel to Iowa City to face Iowa in primetime. Our Trevor Woods introduced you to the Hawkeyes yesterday, and it seems the clock has struck midnight and turned their carriage into a pumpkin after a magical 2015 season. Nonetheless, night games at Kinnick Stadium normally produce a weird juju. So, Michigan, beware.

To learn more about what the Wolverines should expect in Iowa City, we reached out to Max Brekke (@GospelOfMax), who is the managing editor of Black Heart Gold Pants (@BHGP) -- SB Nation’s Iowa team site. Max was courteous enough to respond to our questions about Iowa’s decline from 2015 to 2016, whether Iowa’s running backs can successfully attack Michigan’s defense on the edge, whether Desmond King or Jourdan Lewis is the better cornerback, and what the atmosphere will be on Saturday night.

Oh, and we asked Max to provide his score prediction, too. You’ll probably like it.

Check out Max’s answers below!

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Maize n Brew: Iowa had a magical 2015 regular season, winning all 12 of its games, before suffering two postseason losses. However, there was a heated offseason debate between Iowa fans and advanced-stat advocates as to what it meant for 2016. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Iowa fans claimed that the Hawkeyes would be strong Big Ten West contenders again, while advanced-stat advocates countered that the Hawkeyes had an unsustainable amount of good fortune and would regress to the mean. Right now, Iowa is 5-4 and 49th in S&P+. Do you think the advanced-stat advocates foresaw this? Or have there been other reasons for this downturn?

Max Brekke: First off, Kirk Ferentz meets with an analytics group every week and he hates it, so Iowa fans do, too.

Anyway, now that that's out of the way, I'd agree with the notion that Iowa did have a lot of good fortune last season, and I think that any Iowa fan who says otherwise simply doesn't know a whole lot about football. In hindsight, I think that last season's team would have easily won nine games, with Wisconsin and Pitt being two games that could have definitely gone the other way. However, coming into this season, plenty of people (Iowa and non-Iowa fans alike) thought the Hawks could contend again as a team that was returning a lot of key pieces and doesn't often beat itself. That obviously hasn't been the case, and I don't think anyone (even the advanced-stat advocates) foresaw that last year's Iowa team could realistically finish 5-7 this season.

So while I think the advanced-stat advocates realized Iowa obviously couldn't sustain the success from last season, it'd be foolish to say that there hasn't been a plethora of other reasons as to why Iowa has been so bad this season. I think most people would agree that while many of the core pieces of last year's team returned this season, Iowa lost a lot of key pieces that many overlooked, which has been the biggest difference between last year and this year. Iowa's safety play has been downright abysmal after the departure of Jordan Lomax, the offensive line has been shaky at best without Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh, and the wide receivers can't get any separation after losing Tevaun Smith to graduation (and Matt VandeBerg to injury). No one has stepped up this year in those positions, and as a result, the team has become very predictable and easy to game plan for, especially since Kirk Ferentz and OC Greg Davis refuse to try to play to their personnel's strengths.

MnB: Each of Iowa's first three losses were by one score, losing to North Dakota State by two, Northwestern by seven, and Wisconsin by eight. However, last week's 41-14 defeat at the hands of Penn State was by far the Hawkeyes' worst of the season. What were your biggest takeaways from that game? What did the Nittany Lions do that was so effective against Iowa?

MB: The biggest takeaway from that game is that unless there are significant changes made this week during practice, the Hawkeyes stand absolutely no chance against the Wolverines on Saturday, and even if there are significant changes made, there still very well could be no chance. Penn State did absolutely everything they wanted against the Hawkeyes, and it's not easy to pick out just a couple things they did that were so effective. They passed the ball, and that was effective. They ran it, and that worked, too. They stacked the box against an offense that's run by someone so stubborn that he'll gladly run into a nine-man box, daring C.J. Beathard to throw the ball to a group of wide receivers who are still somehow considered unproven after nine games. Here's our very short review of our keys to the game, essentially detailing what Iowa had to do to win, and how none of it happened.

MnB: The strength of Iowa's offense has been its rushing attack (25th in S&P+), and LeShun Daniels, Jr. (130 car., 646 yards, 6 TD) and Akrum Wadley (99 car., 664 yards, 8 TD) have been the dangermen. Michigan has been excellent against the run defensively (2nd in S&P+), but, in the last two weeks, Michigan State and Maryland have shown that the Wolverines can be vulnerable on the edge. How would you describe the running styles of Daniels, Jr. and Wadley? Does either have the ability to attack the edge? Will Iowa put them in that position?

MB: Daniels is considered the "bruiser" of the Iowa backfield - he's generally the guy who will run the ball in between the tackles although he has big play ability on occasion. If Michigan is susceptible on the edge, then Michigan fans will be more concerned about Akrum Wadley. Wadley has really good speed and is great at making defenders miss, so Iowa generally tries to get him in space. He'll run between the tackles, too, as he possesses a bit of power, but he's best when he's running to the outside.

Whether or not Iowa exploits what could be an advantage has yet to be seen. Iowa's designed runs are generally to the inside and Wadley often makes the decision to bounce it outside to space, so if he's able to find the time and room to make those cuts to the outside, he could create a mismatch for the Michigan defense. Iowa will occasionally run a pitch with him, and even tried to incorporate the jet sweep with him against Penn State (albeit to the short side of the field, since Iowa can't get creative AND do it right all at once), but I think Iowa will stick to what it normally does against everyone.

MnB: C.J. Beathard was expected to be one of the best Big Ten quarterbacks this season. However, his numbers (59.9 cmp%, 7.0 YPA, 13:5 TD:INT, 133.02 rtg) have slightly dipped from 2015 and are about average in the conference. How would you evaluate Beathard's performance this year? How much of an impact has the injury to Matt VandeBerg had?

MB: C.J. Beathard has not been very good this season, although I don't know how much I fault him for his drop in performance. As previously mentioned, Iowa has a shaky offensive line (particularly in pass protection) and lacks playmakers at the wide receiver position, and I think that a lack of trust in the players around him has led to his declining performance in 2016. You can often see that his internal clock is just slightly off and as a result, he'll either scramble too quickly or not quickly enough. He's began to use his check downs with frightening frequency, but it can be assumed that it's because his receivers are unable to get separation downfield.

Matt VandeBerg's injury is HUGE to this offense because coming into the season, it looked like MVB was the only receiving threat that Beathard really trusted, and that can be evidenced by the fact that it took a few games after MVB's injury for another wide receiver to surpass his catch total. It's forced C.J. to throw to targets that he's not comfortable throwing to, and as a result, there are a whole ton of passes to Riley McCarron (who replaced MVB as top target) and whoever the running back is on a particular play.

MnB: Michigan has become a balanced offense over the course of the season (8th in Rushing S&P+ and 3rd in Passing S&P+) and can move the ball efficiently in either manner. A look at Iowa's statistical profile suggests the Wolverines may want to take to the ground. The Hawkeyes' defense is 87th in Rushing S&P+ and just surrendered 359 rushing yards at 6.9 yards per carry to Penn State. Do you agree with this assessment? Or do you believe Iowa's pass defense has been weaker? If you agree, why has Iowa had trouble stopping the run?

MB: No, no, no. Iowa's actually better at defending the run, usually, but I'd say their games against Penn State and NDSU this season really skewed those advanced stats. Iowa's been beaten on the ground when the opposing team has a quarterback who's a threat to run the ball, and both Easton Stick and Trace McSorely are exactly that. Even Northwestern had success on the ground against Iowa, and that was because Clayton Thorson made the Hawkeyes respect his abilities to run the ball on occasion. Speight isn't any of those guys, and so I think Iowa's defense can be a lot more comfortable trying to defend the run.

Where I would expect Michigan to have success is through the air. Iowa's safeties are very bad, and can be beaten pretty easily through the air when they're in coverage, and Greg Mabin is a solid defender opposite Desmond King, but struggles to get his head around quickly enough on certain routes and as a result, is definitely vulnerable. Iowa also has a tendency to leave all three linebackers in the game regardless of the situation, which means that if Michigan goes three-wide at any point during the game (or decides to utilize Jake Butt a lot, which I have no question they'll do), they'll likely find success matched up against Bo Bower and Ben Niemann. I wouldn't recommend that Wilton Speight throws at Desmond King, but I'm sure that Jim Harbaugh is exactly the kind of guy who will want to throw at him.

MnB: Let's settle it. Who is the better cornerback: Desmond King or Jourdan Lewis?

MB: I'm sure that I'll get a lot of flak around these parts for this one, but I'll take Desmond King any day. King and Lewis are both great corners, but I think King's stats compare very well with Lewis, without the great supporting cast that Lewis has. As I've previously mentioned a couple times, Iowa's safeties are not good, and so King has to often do a lot of work without much safety help. Opposing quarterbacks are downright afraid to throw King's way, which explains the lack of statistical success that King has had thus far this season, and if I'm not incorrect, I think that King has only been thrown at for one touchdown this season, that being against Penn State.

King is also (for better or for worse) as sure a tackler as they come, which is why (along with his smaller frame) a lot of people think he might project as a safety in the NFL. He's pretty good in space and is generally pretty good at tackling ball carriers on the edge. A lot of Penn State fans have come out of this past week saying that Penn State torched King multiple times, and while he was beaten badly for one touchdown, I'd hardly constitute having someone run through you while you're being blocked as "being torched." Penn State fans, you know?

On top of all of that, he's shown to be a dynamic player in the return game, averaging about 30 yards per kickoff return this season. A lot of fans want Iowa to use him on offense like Michigan uses Jabrill Peppers, but Kirk Ferentz has long ruled that out as a possibility.

Oh, and he also has one thing that Jourdan Lewis doesn't have: a Thorpe Award.

MnB: What one thing must Iowa do to have offensive success vs. Michigan? Defensive success?

MB: If Iowa's offense is to come out and put points on the board against the Wolverines, they're going to need to be as balanced as possible. They get into ruts where they constantly run the ball on first and second down, and EVERYONE knows that it's coming. From there, they then face 3rd-and-long, and, well, punt the ball because they can't complete a forward pass. But let's be realistic. There is absolutely no chance that this Iowa offense moves the needle against this Michigan defense. The Hawkeye offense is so offensive that people have been openly questioning whether or not they'll be able to put up enough points to beat Illinois. I personally wonder if they could put points on the board against Oregon's defense, run by your favorite former head coach. I'd love for them to prove me wrong, though.

In order to have defensive success, they just need to tackle. Tackle the guys on the Michigan offense. They have a bunch of solid players, but for some reason, they miss so many tackles. If they can at least slow Michigan down on offense, I think they'll have a chance. Michigan doesn't have a Saquon Barkley, as much as I'm sure Michigan fans would love to counter that argument. Iowa has faced good running backs in Corey Clement and Justin Jackson, and they've done pretty well against them. They just need to figure out tackling.

MnB: What is the mood in Iowa City this week? Two straight losses are sure to dampen the spirits of Iowa fans, but the Hawkeyes are hosting a night game in Kinnick Stadium against the No. 2 or 3 team depending on your poll of choice. Are the team and fans excited for the chance to stage a big upset? What type of atmosphere should Michigan expect on Saturday?

MB: Judging by the team's comments during today's presser, I know they're ready and excited for a chance to upset the Wolverines. I think Iowa fans will get up and ready for the night game, and that they'll start off ready to intimidate. I expect a raucous crowd, but I think that if Michigan gets a couple of scores early and Iowa isn't able to respond, Kinnick will start emptying out at halftime. I went to a night game against Penn State at Kinnick in 2012 (the year that Iowa went 4-8) and this is exactly how it happened. I'd expect about the same if it starts poorly this time, too.

MnB: Prediction time. What happens? Who wins? What is the final score?

MB: I honestly don't know if Iowa will score in this one. I don't think they'll be able to run the ball consistently, but I do know that they'll try to do it regardless. I think Michigan will gain about 150 on the ground and another couple hundred through the air, making it difficult for Iowa to hone in on any particular game plan. I don't know what Iowa can do to keep this one even kind of close. I'm picking Michigan, 45-0.

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Wow. In an unusual twist in these opponent Q&As, Max predicts that Iowa will be shut out by Michigan in Kinnick Stadium. What do you think? Is Max being too hard on the Hawkeyes’ chances? Or is Michigan about to rout Iowa? Share your thoughts below!

And a big thank you to Max for taking the time to participate in our Q&A! Please make sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his excellent Iowa coverage over at BHGP!