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Key Matchups: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 16 Iowa

The Wolverines return to Indy once again for a chance at a championship hat trick.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Erik Bean Erik is a lifelong Wolverines fan born and raised in West Michigan. He covers a variety of topics related to Michigan football including game analysis and recruiting.

The Michigan Wolverines are riding high after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes to return to the Big Ten Championship for the third season in a row. Michigan heads to Indianapolis to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes, who finished the season 10-2.

Unfortunately it isn’t quite the matchup the Wolverines were hoping for, as both Michigan transfers Cade McNamara and Erick All are out for the season with injuries. Despite losing them, the Hawkeyes will pose some challenges for Michigan, specifically on the defensive side of the ball.

Let’s take a look at this week’s key matchups.

Michigan’s DL vs. Iowa’s rushing attack

The fact this Iowa team has won 10 games with an anemic offense is really quite incredible. This may be indicative of how talented its defense is, or how weak the Big Ten West really is, or both. When Iowa does move the ball, it primarily does so on the ground.

Iowa uses a pair of running backs in Leshon Williams and Kaleb Johnson. Neither player jumps of the charts statistically, but they have combined for almost 1,200 yards. Both average more than four yards per carry and differ in size, creating a unique matchup for the Michigan defensive front.

Williams, the smaller of the two backs, is their leading rusher. He is a shifty playmaker capable of sniffing out holes if you are not gap sound. Johnson is a bruising back who can pick up yards after contact. The Wolverines will need to tackle well at the line of scrimmage to limit these two.

Luckily for the Wolverines, stopping the run has not been much of an issue. They boast the No. 6 rush defense in the country and are coming off a huge rivalry victory where they limited the Buckeyes to just slightly more than 100 yards rushing. Michigan’s defensive line has been exceptional, and they close on the ball quickly. If the Hawkeyes are forced to rely on quarterback Deacon Hill to move the ball, they are likely in trouble.

Michigan’s WRs/TEs vs. Iowa’s secondary

The Wolverines were much more balanced offensively against Ohio State than they had been the two games prior. This is likely due to both the offensive game plan as well as J.J. McCarthy working through an injury. With McCarthy being almost fully healthy, it is unlikely the Hawkeyes will be able to make this Michigan offense one dimensional.

The receivers and tight ends shined in Michigan’s rivalry victory. Tight end Colston Loveland ended the game with 88 yards on five receptions. With the Wolverines wanting to get a lot of their offensive weapons reps heading into the postseason, it is likely the passing game will remain active.

Iowa will create some challenges, though. The Hawkeyes currently boast the No. 9 pass defense in the country thanks to a veteran secondary. Although they have been successful in limiting big plays through the air, they will be asked to do so without star defensive back Cooper DeJean, who is out due to injury.

The player who will likely be tasked with slowing down Roman Wilson will be Sebastian Castro. He is a senior with a lot of experience, leading the team in interceptions with three. He is the team’s fourth-leading tackler as well.

Michigan’s tight ends will be a matchup nightmare for Iowa’s defense, as most of its secondary is on the smaller side. Loveland showed out in last year’s Big Ten Championship, and he very well could do that again on Saturday.

Michigan’s special teams vs. Iowa’s special teams

Iowa relies on defense and special teams to put up points. Tory Taylor, who has won the Eddleman-Fields Punter of the Year twice now and averaged nearly 50 yards per punt this season, is an absolute field-flipper. The field position battle is very important to Iowa and has kept it in many games against teams that don’t have high powered offenses.

The Wolverines have a reliable punter of their own in Tommy Doman. He may not have quite the leg that Taylor has, but has proven the last two weeks at Maryland and vs. Ohio State that he is able to put some touch on the ball and pin opposing teams deep.

The Hawkeyes’ special teams weakness may be at the kicker position. Drew Stevens has only made 69.2 percent of his field goal attempts this season, with a converted long of 53 yards. He missed two field goals last week against Nebraska, so Kirk Ferentz had backup Marshall Meeder kick the game-winner. Ferentz told reporters this week the plan is for Stevens to be the top kicker this weekend, but this is certainly a development worth watching further.

Meanwhile for Michigan, Louisville transfer James Turner has been consistent all season long, converting 85.7 percent of his field goals and missing just one extra point all the way back in Week 1. He drilled three field goals last weekend — with a long of 50 yards — to take down the Buckeyes. Now that he’s got some experience kicking on the biggest stage, Michigan fans should feel at ease knowing he can step up when needed.

The game will likely be back and forth to start, but when the Wolverines get into a rhythm, they should make easy work of the Hawkeyes.