After Purdue and Ohio State exposed the Spartans, it was trendy to say something along the lines of “Michigan still has all of its goals in front of it.” Truthfully, no one really expected any of those goals to actually be attainable, let alone realized. But after a historic 42-27 catharsis last weekend, the Wolverines are on the verge of something great.
Standing in the way is Big Ten West winner Iowa, who...backdoored its way into the title game. The 10-2 Hawkeyes are a tale of three seasons, winning their first six to climb to No. 2 in the rankings before suffering back-to-back blowouts. The recovered nicely — albeit against lesser competition — to sit alone atop the division at 7-2 in conference play.
Michigan and Iowa have plenty of history, including the past decade. Everyone remembers the devastating upset in 2016, which was a repeat of another Hawkeye comeback three years prior in 2013. The Wolverines won the most recent matchup in 2019, and if it were not for a Covid cancelation, the teams were supposed to meet at the end of 2020 as well. Coincidentally, the two schools will battle once again in Iowa City next season.
Many key figures on both sides of the recent 10-3 Michigan win have changed, but on the surface the overall numbers do not seem that foreign. The teams had 267 and 261 total yards, with the Wolverines logging four turnovers and eight (!!) sacks — some guy named Aidan Hutchinson had 2.5 sacks himself. This weekend could bring much of the same as SP+’s No. 21 team tries to hang close with a determined Michigan squad.
No. 2 Michigan Wolverines (11-1, 8-1) vs. No. 13 Iowa Hawkeyes (10-2, 7-2)
The Iowa defense is legit, ranking fourth per SP+, so around the level of the Badgers and Nittany Lions. Some of this could be helped by weaker competition, but on the whole Michigan will have to work for its yards. Cade McNamara is not a top-tier quarterback, but he knows how to read a defense and take advantage of mismatches. With the injury of starting corner Matt Hankins, he should be able to effectively keep the offense moving as he did against the Buckeyes.
Last weekend, there was nothing that could stand in the way of the Michigan run game. Hassan Haskins, Blake Corum, and the offensive line had everything they wanted, posting a ridiculous 7.2 yards a carry. As good as this unit looks right now, it should be noted that the Wolverines had not been completely dominant running the ball in conference play and the Hawkeyes can provide resistance. Still, Michigan has shown an ability to get creative and find the right matchups on the ground, and all three running backs are capable of attacking holes in the defense.
One thing that could be a factor is the deployment of J.J. McCarthy. Josh Gattis had some distinct packages for the freshman against Ohio State, and should Michigan need to mix things up against a frustrating Iowa defensive front, one option could be giving the five star a few specific looks. McCarthy might be able to attack vertically in ways McNamara cannot, and even the threat of a quarterback run can help keep the defense honest if the offense needs a boost.
Meanwhile, there is a clear area of distinct imbalance in this game, and it exists when Iowa has the ball. This unit is ranked just 92nd overall, which is only the seventh-best Big Ten attack Michigan has faced this season (grading slightly above Washington, for reference). The crux of these issues for the West champions is the quarterback position, which saw some controversy and not much success.
Spencer Petras has started most of the year before losing his job after missing a few games injured. As the backup, he stepped in partway through last week to save the game against Nebraska, but on the season has just nine touchdowns to six picks and has thrown for under 200 yards per game with a 58.1 percent completion rate.
His competitor has not been any better. Alex Padilla has completed only 46.4 percent of his passes while logging just two scores despite playing most of November. Both quarterbacks are no threat to run and get sacked a ton; the Hawkeyes are 92nd in sacks allowed and 114th in TFL allowed in conference games. Tyler Goodson is a 1,000 yard rusher, but the Wolverines are likely to clog up the line fairly easily against him without much to fear in the passing game.
Michigan was able to impose its will against Ohio State and play the game it wanted to play, and that is the key again on Saturday. While the Iowa defense is technically rated higher than the Buckeyes by analytics, much of their success is due to winning the turnover battle — the Hawkeyes are seventh in turnover margin and lead the country in picks. If McNamara takes care of the ball, which he always does, Michigan will be fine. Throw the ball intelligently when and where the defense allows and let Haskins and company do the rest.
On the other side, if Hutchinson wanted a chance to win the Heisman, there could not be a better opponent for him to cap off his campaign. This offense line is awful and both quarterbacks cannot escape sacks, let alone run for productive yards. The Michigan pass rush will get home early and often, and unless the Hawkeyes can gain big chunks on the ground, the school’s all-time sack leader in one season is going to have a field day. Getting Iowa into any sort of passing down looks like a major win.