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No. 4 Michigan at Iowa Preview: Bumpy roads may be ahead when traveling west

At least one side of the ball should bring a compelling matchup.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 04 Big Ten Championship Game - Michigan v Iowa Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last week was an actual test for the Michigan Wolverines and in the end it was mission accomplished, as Maryland’s impressive offense was not enough for the upset. How it happened, though, was not quite pretty, and there are some tangible takeaways for a talented, but developing Michigan team.

For better or worse, not many of those items will be at the forefront of Saturday’s trip to face the Iowa Hawkeyes. While the Terrapins have a great offense (14th per SP+), the Hawkeyes are on the other end of the spectrum (101st). However, Iowa is currently boasting the nation’s best defense per the analytics, giving the sixth-ranked Wolverine offense a real test.

The narratives for this one are bountiful, especially considering the 42-3 blowout in last season’s Big Ten Championship Game. Vegas likes the visitors by double-digits, but Michigan will have to play smart to come away with the win. September is over for the Wolverines; the heart of the season is here.

No. 4 Michigan Wolverines (4-0, 1-0) at Iowa Hawkeyes (3-1, 1-0)

Date & Time: Saturday, Oct. 1, Noon ET
Location: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, Iowa
TV/Streaming: FOX

The main event

The No. 6 offense faces the No. 1 defense. J.J. McCarthy had his first true hiccups against Maryland, uncharacteristically missing on some deep shots and making the wrong read a few times. Michigan cannot afford to repeat these missed opportunities against a stingy defense that does not give away anything easy.

The Wolverines absolutely have the personnel to beat this defense as was seen in Indianapolis last December (even though some of those names have changed a bit). However, the players need to be put in the right positions to succeed, and that happens through creative decisions and play calling.

While trick plays are a lot of fun (see: Roman Wilson), creativity can take a lot of forms. For example, using unpredictable blocks with timely pulls and double-teams will help Blake Corum get the space he needs to make a defense pay. Scheming wide receivers and tight ends open in the pockets of space underneath allows the playmakers to take on individual defenders and keep the ball moving down the field. These small wins are crucial when facing an opponent of this caliber.

McCarthy has the talent and intelligence to test this defense, but the hope is that Michigan does not need him to be pinpoint-accurate 40 yards downfield. Instead, using his legs to move defenders and get his targets open, while also making life easier for Corum and Donovan Edwards, is a more steady way to find success against this staunch defense that excels both against the ground and in the air.

Show no mercy

The story begins for the Iowa offense with Spencer Petras, who has one total touchdown this season to go with two interceptions. At 5.6 yards per attempt and a 51.1 percent completion rate — numbers comparable with his performance last December — the Michigan secondary is licking its chops ahead of a complete mismatch.

None of the Iowa running backs intimidate, and there are not many weapons in the passing game that can bail Petras out, with tight end Sam LaPorta maybe the lone exception. Instead, this team seems to get as many points from its defense and special teams as from the actual offense. This should be taken seriously, but the Wolverines can certainly feel confident in their offense and special teams to neutralize this perceived advantage for the home team.

Last week was a bit of a wakeup call for the Michigan defense, but there is only so much that can be taken away from that game, as Petras is a very far cry from Taulia Tagovailoa’s arm and escapability. Still, the defensive line has some room for growth in terms of getting off blocks and wrapping up quarterbacks, and there is no excuse not to get to the quarterback on every inevitable third-and-long when the Hawkeyes will actually look to pass.

One position to watch is the linebacking corps, who could be a big part of shutting this meek offense down completely. Junior Colson and Michael Barrett have been up-and-down, but their effort against the Terps left something to be desired. Nikhai Hill-Green has yet to appear, but getting him next to Colson would enhance this pairing and allow Barrett to be deployed more situationally.

Expect the expected, avoid the cliche

This is not a trap game, though that concept in general is much more hyped up than an actual reality. There is no world that Michigan is overlooking Iowa or not taking this game, in a hostile road environment that caused pain during the last visit, extremely seriously. These may be college students, but without a doubt everyone is 100 percent locked-in.

At the same time, the numbers are very stark on paper. The Hawkeyes have been extremely unimpressive on offense and rely on their defense to set up favorable situations to win the game. This has worked more often than not, but there is obviously a lot of confidence from the visitors in being able to avoid this script.

So it really feels like there is probably not an outcome that causes surprise here. If Michigan happens to slip up, the headlines will revolve around the Kinnick effect and the favorites not taking their struggling opponents seriously enough. But if the Wolverines come into Iowa City and take care of business, no one will bat an eye and everyone will keep going about their day. McCarthy and company do not need to win anyone over, they just need to execute and keep moving forward.