ANN ARBOUR, Mich. – michigan football opened as a double-digit favorite at Iowa this weekend, but it’s still a very dangerous game regardless of how both teams look so far.
Prior to the start of the season, Michigan’s trip to Kinnick Stadium was widely regarded as one of the toughest tests of the year. Iowa is coming off a 10-win season that included a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game, and the Wolverines haven’t won in Iowa City since 2005.
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But over the past month, the perception of this game has changed. Michigan outplayed three outclassed non-conference opponents while the Hawkeyes struggled so offensively they became a bit of a punching bag for low-scoring jokes.
Morning kick off
Last week, it was announced that the kickoff would take place at 11 a.m. Central Time, as opposed to a night game, which many (including myself) expected at the start of the year.
Night games at Kinnick Stadium are notorious burial grounds for ranked visitors, but now that the game is scheduled for earlier in the day, it’s tempting to compare it to last year’s first road game in Wisconsin. The Wolverines beat the Badgers by three touchdowns in front of a sleepy, late crowd.
A word of warning: don’t expect anything close to that this weekend.
The Hawkeyes may not “jump” or put many points on the scoreboard, but their fans will show up for the game. Morning, afternoon or night, Michigan’s first test drive takes place in a hostile environment.
This is one of the reasons not to take this game lightly. Michigan spent the first four weeks of the season in the friendly Big House. Most teams, including Iowa, have hit the road at least once.
Playing during the day has improved Michigan’s chances, but probably not as much as some think.
The Iowa Map
If Jim Harbaugh needed a way to scare his team into taking Iowa seriously, he can thank the Rutgers Scarlet Knights for the movie they provided on Saturday.
Rutgers did exactly what you can’t do against the Hawkeyes: return the ball. Worse, the Scarlet Knights allowed those turnovers to turn into defensive points.
To fully understand the magnitude of these errors, you must first understand how terrible the Iowa offense was.
The Hawkeyes rank dead last — yes, 131st out of 131 FBS teams — in yards per game (232.5). They’re 120th in points per game, at 17, but that number is inflated by three defensive touchdowns (and just four on offense).
You could say that Iowa has only staged one overtime touchdown all season.
Three touchdowns were scored by the defense.
A touchdown drive began at the Iowa State 16-yard line after a blocked punt. Iowa scored on two plays: 7 and 9 yard runs.
The three touchdown passes against Nevada (the 104th ranked defense in FBS) averaged 2.33 plays and 45.33 yards in length. The only one that started on Iowa’s own territory lasted one play: a 55-yard touchdown executed by Kaleb Johnson.
On Saturday, Iowa opened the second half with a nine-game, 75-yard touchdown to put the nail in Rutgers’ coffin. Although he was helped by a pass interference penalty at third and on base at the 14-yard line, it was the best practice of the season for the Hawkeyes.
Kirk Ferentz wants his team to take care of the football, clear, play great special teams and capitalize on mistakes defensively. Rutgers threw a first-quarter interception and spat a second-quarter fumble. Both were dismissed for touchdowns and the game was effectively over.
This is why Iowa is dangerous. As bad as the offense is, the defense is just as excellent – ranking sixth nationally in yards allowed per game and first in points allowed per game.
Recipe for disaster
Michigan’s performance against Maryland was a model of how to lose at Iowa.
First, Wolverines couldn’t generate any pressure on the defense, and even Spencer Petras can move the ball upfield if allowed to sit comfortably in the pocket. He has an All-American tight end in Sam LaPorta who has already caught 16 passes for 154 yards this season.
Even though those Iowa drives more often end in field goals than touchdowns, that’s usually pretty good for a team that’s allowing just 5.8 points per game.
Meanwhile, JJ McCarthy struggled to deal with football against Maryland. He fumbled twice and was lucky his teammates were there to recover, and the Terrapins should have had a goal-line interception as well.
Michigan gave away the ball once when freshman running back CJ Stokes fumbled on his only carry.
Michigan only finished the game with one turnover, but it very well could have been four. If that happens this weekend, Iowa will feast and Michigan will lose. That’s how the Hawkeyes work.
Separate 2022 from 2021
Just 10 months ago, Michigan beat Iowa like a drum in the Big Ten Championship Game. That night in Indianapolis was more of a Wolverines crowning glory than an actual football game.
But that has no bearing on what happens on Saturday.
Watch the Maryland game. Two weeks before winning the 2021 Big Ten title, Michigan went to College Park and mowed down the Terrapins, 59-18. Ten months later, Maryland entered Ann Arbor and came within a kick of potentially tying or winning the game.
Michigan and Iowa still have many of the same players from last year’s game, but that doesn’t matter. If anything, the Hawkeyes who took this beating might have revenge on their minds.
Michigan seems like a more complete team this season, but Ferentz has a proven formula for winning these types of games. It’s no coincidence that it works more often than not — five of the last six top-five teams to visit Kinnick Stadium have lost, including Michigan in 2016.
Harbaugh said Monday that Iowa City is where “the top five teams are going to die.” And he is absolutely right.
Michigan has a very talented team, so fans should feel a sense of confidence before any game. But Saturday should still be one of the toughest games of the season.
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