It’s the third straight Big Ten Championship Game for the Michigan Wolverines, but it will be a familiar opponent they will face for the second time. The Iowa Hawkeyes won a weird Big Ten West with some classic, ugly football for a shot at taking down the Wolverines.
There has been some turmoil in Iowa City with injuries to Cade McNamara and two of his favorite targets, tight ends Erick All and Luke Lachey. It’s led to another season of awful offense for Iowa.
The defense has carried this team here once again as they are ranked as the No. 1 unit per SP+. Obviously, with a top-ranked defense, there are going to be playmakers on every level, and the Hawkeyes have just that. Let’s evaluate three guys who could do enough to keep this game close against the Wolverines.
Edge Joe Evans
Evans is the unequivocal leader of this Iowa defense. His numbers won’t jump out to you, but he’s had a solid season and is a large part of why this defense is as talented as it is.
A fifth-year player, Evans has been a starter the last three years. He was a member of the Iowa team that lost to Michigan, 42-3, in the 2021 Big Ten Championship. He told reporters earlier this week he’s had conversations with several of his teammates already about what that felt like and why it can’t happen again.
That’s where much of his value comes in — Evans is the vocal leader and is Iowa-born and raised. He’s the guy in the middle of every pre-game huddle hyping up his teammates and leading the fight song at the end of the game. He’s a Hawkeye through and through, and this is the last game that could leave a massive impact on his Iowa career.
On the field, he’s up to 5.5 sacks this season, bringing his career total to 24 sacks. He’s also forced three fumbles and can do things like this that can flip momentum in a game quickly:
IOWA’S BEST OFFENSE IS THEIR DEFENSE— The Dylan & Dylan Show (@DylanDylanShow) October 22, 2022
JOE EVANS SACK, SCOOP AND SCORE pic.twitter.com/2hQENjSIvZ
If the Hawkeyes are going to win this game, they need him to have some game-wrecking plays like this one.
LB Jay Higgins
Moving up to the next level of the defense is one of the most productive linebackers in all of college football.
Higgins is No. 2 in the nation in total tackles with 141, and that includes a staggering eight games where he’s reached double-digits. His best game was an 18-tackle performance against Penn State. He’s also good in coverage, knocking down three passes and intercepting one pass this season as well.
This game will mean a little more to Higgins, who will be playing in front of plenty of friends and family in his hometown of Indianapolis. He was also disrespected by not winning Big Ten Linebacker of the Year (Ohio State’s Tommy Eichenberg won) and was not named a finalist for the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s best linebacker. He should have plenty of motivation to show out in this one.
Still, Higgins was rightfully named to the First-Team All-Big Ten Defense by both the coaches and the media. Having almost 30 tackles more than the next closest player definitely helps that.
CB Sebastian Castro
Iowa’s secondary will be hurting in this game, as Cooper DeJean will miss this game with a lower-leg injury. However, some Hawkeye fans will argue Castro has been even better, and it’s kind of hard to argue. Look at some of these numbers from PFF:
Iowa CB Sebastian Castro this season:— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 29, 2023
90.6 PFF Grade
Zero TDs Allowed
3 INTs | 6 PBUs
38.9 Passer Rating Allowed pic.twitter.com/R2CAXqzILC
Iowa will have Castro blitz the quarterback occasionally, and it’s crazy to see some of the stuff he can do. Look at him completely ragdoll this Nebraska running back last week with one arm:
The senior corner is a huge reason Iowa’s run defense is as good as it is. He swarms to the football on the edge with great closing speed, which helps solidify any runs to the outside.
Castro is a member of the Second-Team All-Big Ten Defense, per the media, but somehow the coaches didn’t vote him to any of the three teams. He’s deserving of a lot more recognition than he gets, and he’s absolutely a guy who can make things happen.