The Michigan Wolverines conquered the mighty Ohio State Buckeyes last Saturday in a win that has propelled them to No. 2 in the country and in prime position for a Big Ten Championship and a College Football Playoff appearance. But there is one more step in the way to achieving those goals — the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Iowa boasts one of the best defenses in the country and has one of the best rushing offensive lines in the country. Let’s dig into the three players to watch this Saturday in the Big Ten Championship Game:
Senior CB Riley Moss
Riley Moss has been an absolute menace for quarterbacks this season. He has perfected jumping routes and is an extremely physical corner who has been known to lock down opposing receivers this season.
With four interceptions, including two pick-sixes and a forced fumble on the season, Moss was named the Big Ten Tatem-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year. Those numbers were even more impressive because he missed 3.5 games this season due to a knee injury he suffered against Penn State.
As a four-year starter, Moss has had his share of big moments. Every game the star corner has picked off a ball, Iowa has won in his tenure with the program. That’s an 8-0 record throughout the 28 games he has played in his four years in Iowa City. He is a difference-maker at his position.
Opposing quarterbacks know to avoid him. He’s only been targeted 32 times this season and only 17 of those balls have been completed for a measly 279 yards allowed. He has yet to allow a touchdown in coverage this season. Check out some of the game-changing moments he has had this year:
.@R_moss5 had a career-best season and is part of a @HawkeyeFootball secondary that has recorded an NCAA-leading 22 interceptions in 2021. @B1Gfootball - pic.twitter.com/qrKFjjtsSb— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) November 30, 2021
Junior S Dane Belton
Speaking of ball-hawking members of the Hawkeyes’ secondary, let’s talk about Dane Belton. The only player PFF graded higher than Moss this season in coverage on the Hawkeyes this season was Belton, and Kirk Ferentz loves to use him in a variety of ways.
Mostly, Belton is a slot corner who shuts down opposing receivers. But he also lines up in the box as a hybrid linebacker about a quarter of the time. He’s been targeted 55 times this year for just 33 receptions and 291 yards and is tied for the lead in interceptions in the nation with five. For his stellar play, Belton earned a consensus First-Team All-Big Ten designation alongside Riley Moss and Second-Teamer Matt Hankins. As a unit, the Hawkeyes’ secondary picked off a nation-leading 22 balls this season and 12 of them came from that trio.
Like Moss, Iowa is a perfect 4-0 this season when Belton forces a turnover. He also had a two-interception performance in a 17-12 win on the road against Northwestern a few weeks back. If Cade McNamara isn’t safe with the football, one of Belton or Moss could have a big day yet again and really flip this game on its head.
.@JesuitTigers_FB alum Dane Belton (@dbelton_) is tied for the Big Ten lead with 4 INTs this season. pic.twitter.com/VilX2poZrf— CHRIS TORELLO (@TorelloSports) November 21, 2021
Junior C Tyler Linderbaum
An offensive lineman as a player to watch? Most certainly with this guy. He was even earning some Heisman praise early this season when there was no frontrunner from Ralph Russo of the Associated Press:
Y'all think I'm kidding about this.#Linderbaum4Heisman— Ralph D. Russo (@ralphDrussoAP) October 11, 2021
C'mon, Iowa. https://t.co/K1gcQbScpn
You can see why with his absolutely elite rush-blocking ability that has been the bulldozer for running back Tyler Goodson to run behind for quite a bit of his 1,100 yards this season. No, really. Almost 400 of Goodson’s rushing yards this season have come right up the gut behind Linderbaum this season according to Pro Football Focus. That’s just absurd.
Rushing up the middle is Iowa’s forte this season, as 634 of Goodson’s yards have come from outside the guard spot or further inside. A large portion of that is because of the success Linerbaum has on essentially every down.
Linderbaum is ranked as the No. 1 rush blocking offensive lineman in the country by PFF and has allowed only one sack this season and just three hurries in pass-blocking.
Running the football is vitally important to the Hawkeyes’ success. In wins this season, Iowa has averaged 134.6 yards per game with seven games of over 100 yards rushing. But in losses for the Hawkeyes, they’ve averaged just 50 and scored a combined 14 points in those two losses. Take away their rushing attack and Iowa is going to struggle.
Michigan’s front seven will have to handle their own against a superb Iowa offensive line in the run game and force Spencer Petras to throw the ball on Saturday. If Iowa proves it can move effectively on the ground, it’s going to be much tougher for the Wolverines this weekend.