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Michigan vs. Iowa: The matchup that will determine the game

It may be cliche, but this game will be won at the line.

Rutgers v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Michigan Wolverines are off to a 3-1 start to their season and are 1-1 in Big Ten play with a win over Rutgers last week and a loss to Wisconsin the week prior. Now, they host the top-15 ranked Iowa Hawkeyes who come in undefeated at 4-0.

Despite the perfect season thus far, no one is taking the Hawkeyes’ seriously after a near-loss to Big 12 rival Iowa State, and victories over Miami-Ohio, Rutgers, and Middle Tennessee State. The game this Saturday against Michigan will be a “prove it” game for Iowa, especially because they are an undefeated underdog heading into Ann Arbor.

This is no slouch of a football team. They have one of the most talented offensive lines in the Big Ten and also one of the best pass rushers in the country in A.J. Epenesa. With a battle-worn offensive line for Michigan and a struggling interior pass rush, the Wolverines will have a tough task ahead of them with Iowa coming into town.

The Iowa offensive line has allowed six sacks in the first four games of the season, good enough to be tied for the 39th-best in the country. They have also only allowed 15 tackles for loss, which ties them for the 13th-best in the nation. While they haven’t faced a top-ranked defensive line yet this season, they have done a great job protecting the quarterback and creating holes for their running backs to move the football down the field.

The Hawkeyes offensive line is anchored by two All-Big Ten caliber lineman: Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs. Jackson was sidelined due to a knee injury against Miami-Ohio in Iowa’s week one victory, and he is probable to return this weekend according to Hawk Central. Iowa’s offensive line will only get better if their 2018 Second Team All-Big Ten offensive lineman returns this Saturday.

The Michigan defensive line has been sub-par for most of the season, specifically the interior of the line. Kwity Paye and Josh Uche have both been impressive as edge rushers, and Aidan Hutchinson has excelled in his second year in the Maize and Blue. But Mike Danna has not put up anywhere near the same numbers that he did last year at Central Michigan, and Donovan Jeter and Carlo Kemp have left some to be desired on the interior, specifically against Wisconsin. If they cannot get it figured out by Saturday, the Wolverines could be in a world of hurt as Iowa will beat the football down their throats up the middle.

On the other side of the ball, the offensive line for Michigan was being touted as one of the best in the country heading into the 2019 season, but through four games they have been far from it. They were flat out terrible against Wisconsin as the Badgers defense put constant pressure on Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey. The Wolverines need to pony up and not let that happen again when they face Iowa. Jon Runyan Jr. should be close to full strength, and the veteran leaders on this line like Ben Bredeson, Michael Onwenu, and Cesar Ruiz need to step up to make Michigan a contender in the Big Ten.

They will face one of the conference’s best defensive lineman, Epenesa, on Saturday. Last season, Epenesa did not start a single game for the Iowa Hawkeyes, but totaled 10.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles. As a starter this year, teams are focusing on the talented defensive lineman and have held him to just a single sack in 2019. Michigan need that trend to continue to be successful against the Hawkeyes on Saturday.

As cliche as it may be, this game will be won in the trenches. Iowa always provides a tough fight for the Wolverines, and this year will be no different. With one of the top offensive lines in the country and a superstar defensive pass rusher in Epenesa, Iowa is set up to attack some of the weakest points of the Michigan roster this season. The offensive line and interior pass rush must play better for the Wolverines this Saturday if they want to compete in this game and beyond.