The Michigan Wolverines are set to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes at noon on Saturday in what will be a pivotal game for the Wolverines simply because they have to keep winning if they want to reach their goals this season. And also, Iowa is pretty good.
We had a chat with Hawkeyes writer Jonah Parker from SB Nation’s Black Heart Gold Pants. Jonah talks how the offense is trending, who the best players are on both sides of the ball, and gives us a fair and balanced prediction of the game.
Behind Enemy Lines Q&A with Jonah Parker
Q: Iowa is 4-0 on the year, what are your general thoughts about the team and how the rest of the season will unfold for them?
A: I think most Iowa fans expect this game to go a long way in determining how the rest of the season will unfold. The Hawkeyes are 4-0, but only one of those wins was against a quality opponent.
One thing that feels different at this stage in the season is Iowa’s handling of the opponents they were supposed to beat. For much of the Ferentz era. We’ve seen the Hawkeyes eek out wins against MAC opponents much in the same way they try to grind out wins against teams like Michigan and Ohio. This year the offense has kept its foot on the gas much later into games.
However, when faced with a good Iowa State defense (as well as a slew of less than ideal circumstances), Iowa seemed to go back to some of its old tendencies. The matchup this week, with a team that is top to bottom more talented, should show Iowa fans whether this can be a great season or just another 8-4 season full of “what-ifs”.
Q: QB Nate Stanley may have lost two of his favorite targets in Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, but he’s having one heck of a year early on, throwing for 965 yards, 8 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a 64.4% completion percentage. Could you give us a scouting report on Stanley and his top weapons in the passing game? What have they been doing well?
A: Stanley is a really interesting player. Statistically speaking, he’s going to leave Iowa City as an all-timer. He’ll almost certainly be the leader in touchdown passes and will finish top-5 in passing yardage.
The knock on him has always been his ability to make the big play, especially when it comes to the deep ball. That has looked better this season, but there’s still room for improvement.
Notably though, Iowa is taking shots downfield. That’s long been a lament of Hawkeye fans and OC Brian Ferentz has shown a willingness to at least test taking the top off the defense with Ihmir Smith-Marsette. ISM is the fastest guy on Iowa’s roster and he’s a legitimate weapon. He came into the season as a preseason All-American return man after winning return man of the year in the Big Ten a season ago and good things happen when the ball is in his hands. Stanley is completing nearly 80% of attempts when targeting Smith-Marsette, which is a big driver of Iowa’s success throwing the ball.
Opposite Smith-Marsette is Brandon Smith, who is more of your prototypical Iowa receiver. He’s long at 6’3” and you’ll hear Saturday’s announcing crew mention at least twice that he wears size XXL gloves. He was also a state champion high jumper in Mississippi. He doesn’t have the speed of ISM, but he’s a great red zone target for Stanley and has sure hands at the sticks.
The other two receivers worth knowing are Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy. Both are smaller guys who operate out of the slot. They’ve been soaking up a lot of the targets that went to T.J Hockenson and Noah Fant a year ago. The Hawkeyes don’t have a tight end anywhere close to as talented as those two right now and the offensive scheme has shifted a bit to take advantage of the place the talent has sprung up.
Q: Iowa appears to have a three-headed monster at running back with Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young, and Tyler Goodson all rushing for over 200 yards in the first four games. Should Michigan expect a committee effort at RB on Saturday?
A: You’ll definitely see a committee and may well see four Iowa backs work in. Sargent is the lead back and is the most versatile. He isn’t a burner, but he has enough juice to break off a big run if a lane opens up. He’s also got very good hands and will likely be out there on third down. That’s also due to his ability to block in the passing game, which is the best of Iowa’s backs right now.
Toren Young is likely to be the second man up. He’s the bruiser of the group and what he lacks in breakaway speed, he makes up for with the ability to pick a hole and get north/south. He’s decisive and will finish runs strong.
Goodson is a true freshman and is the most dynamic of Iowa’s backs. He’s slight and won’t likely be trusted to pass block, but he has a gear Iowa fans aren’t used to seeing. When he gets the edge, he’s the Hawkeyes’ best bet to break one to the house. He’s also a tremendous pass catcher and has wiggle reminiscent of Akrum Wadley - a name that should be familiar for Wolverine fans. There’s a reason Harbaugh tried to swoop in late to lure Goodson away from Iowa the way he did Karan Higdon.
And finally, there’s Ivory Kelly-Martin. IKM was Iowa’s starter at the beginning of last seat, but injuries have derailed his career thus far. He’ll likely be sprinkled in here and there and possibly in 2-back looks as he’s somewhat of a Sargent-light.
Q: Who are Iowa’s top players on defense and what kind of scheme do they utilize?
A: For all the talk this offseason about a shift in philosophy by DC Phil Parker to more of a 4-2-5 base defense, this defense will look just about like every other defense Michigan has faced under Ferentz.
The Hawkeyes are dealing with an absurd number of injuries in the secondary. While they’ll have week one starting safety Kaevon Merriweather back this week, they’re likely still without starting corner Matt Hankins, as well as the top two backups at CB in Julius Brents and Riley Moss.
The depletion in the secondary has limited Parker’s options and the defense has looked almost exclusively like the traditional 4-3 Iowa has always run. That means linebackers matched up on running backs and slot receivers in space. It’s a scary thought for Iowa fans.
The counter to that is the strength along the defensive line. The star is preseason All-American A.J. Epenesa. Don’t let the current sack total fool you, he’s been limited because opponents have used 2 and often 3 blockers to slow him down on essentially every play. If Michigan gets prideful and tries to block him with one linemen, he will get home for a sack.
Opposite Epenesa is Chauncey Golston. He was a preseason favorite for a breakout season knowing all the attention Epenesa would garner on one side of the line. To date, he’s been relatively quiet. If Iowa wants to pressure Shea Patterson, Golston is going to need to step up.
Another name to watch up front is Daviyon Nixon. He’s not listed as a starter, but he’s Iowa’s most talented DT. He comes in around 6’3” and north of 3 bills and he’s incredibly quick. He’ll be critical in the run game and may well find his way to disrupting a pass drop or two.
Q: What is Iowa’s biggest strength and most glaring weakness?
A: The biggest strength is likely the defensive line for all the reasons laid out above. Coming into the year, most Iowa fans would have told you the offensive line was the biggest strength and that may be true again down the road. As for right now. The Hawkeyes have been without starting left tackle Alaric Jackson since week one. He’s back on the two deep for Saturday, but it remains to be seen just how healthy he is.
With Jackson out, Iowa slid preseason All-American right tackle Tristan Wirfs to the other side and have shifted several players through at right guard and tackle. The result has been a lot of guys with experience but little cohesion. That will be magnified this week as new starting RG Kyler Schott is also out with an injury.
As woeful as the injury situation sounds up front, you’d be hard pressed to find a Hawkeye fan who would call the OL a weakness. The secondary, however, is borderline given the absurd injury situation there.
Safety Geno Stone is rock solid and senior CB Michael Ojemudia has stepped up well, but the lack of depth is a major concern. With Michigan’s talent at WR, it’s troubling for Iowa.
Q: What are your thoughts on Michigan this season from what you’ve seen and heard?
It’s difficult to get a good read on Michigan thus far. I think a lot of Iowa fans had chalked this game up as a loss before the season started and circled the home matchup with Penn State next weekend as one Iowa could steal. But the Wolverines didn’t look great against Army. That will happen when you take on a team running an offense far more outdated than even Iowa’s, but then seeing the Wisconsin game really changed perceptions.
Wisconsin may just be that good (which would be concerning), but that result really opened up the possibility of Iowa stealing one in the Big House in the minds of a lot of Hawkeye fans. Then they went out and obliterated Rutgers by more than Iowa did in week 2.
At the end of the day, I think Hawkeye fans know Michigan is more talented, but the hope is Iowa has enough talent in places like the offensive and defensive lines to make this a dog fight. The Wolverines should be able to test Iowa’s secondary, but I’m not sure we know how good Shea Patterson is this year.
Q: Any predictions for the game?
A: In years past, Kirk Ferentz has approached games like this by trying to slow things down and force opponents to play in a phone booth. I think it’s in his gut to do the same this weekend.
I hope he doesn’t.
This particular Iowa team is at its best when the offense is attacking. The run game is best when Stanley is throwing downfield to keep the safeties high. This is the most talented group of receivers we’ve seen in a decade and we have four quality backs behind a very good offensive line.
If the Ferentzi approach this game the way they did the Ohio State matchup in 2017 (you know, the one where Iowa won 55-24), this will be a great game. If they approach is the way they did the Michigan game in 2017, we’re all going to want to poke our eyeballs out. I don’t know that Iowa is capable of that kind of big win here, but I think that attacking style is what’s needed to win on Saturday.
Iowa is 6-2 under Ferentz against Michigan when the Wolverines are favored by less than 10 coming into the game. I’ll put on my black and gold glasses and say the trend continues.
Iowa 27, Michigan 24.