ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football opened as a double-digit favorite at Iowa this weekend, but this is still a very dangerous game, regardless of how the two teams have looked so far.
Before the season started, 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 matchup has changed. Michigan dominated three overmatched non-conference opponents while the Hawkeyes struggled so much offensively that they became a bit of a punching bag for low-scoring jokes.
Last week, it was announced that kickoff would be at 11 a.m. Central Time -- as opposed to a night game, which many (including myself) had 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 at Wisconsin. The Wolverines beat the Badgers by three touchdowns in front of a sleepy and late-arriving crowd.
A word of warning: Don’t expect anything close to that this weekend.
The Hawkeyes might not “Jump Around” or put many points on the scoreboard, but their fans will show up for the game. Morning, afternoon, or night, Michigan’s first road test is coming in a hostile environment.
That’s one reason not to take this game lightly. Michigan has spent the first four weeks of the season in the friendly confines of the Big House. Most teams, including Iowa, have already gone on the road at least once.
Playing during the day improved Michigan’s odds, but probably not as much as some think.
If Jim Harbaugh needed a way to scare his team into taking Iowa seriously, he can thank the Rutgers Scarlet Knights for the film they provided on Saturday.
Rutgers did exactly what you can’t do against the Hawkeyes: turn the ball over. Even worse, the Scarlet Knights allowed those turnovers to turn into defensive points.
To fully understand the magnitude of those mistakes, you must first understand just how awful Iowa’s offense has been.
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 only four on offense).
One could argue that Iowa has only put together one extended touchdown drive all season.
- Three touchdowns have been scored by the defense.
- One touchdown drive started on Iowa State’s 16-yard line after a blocked punt. Iowa scored on two plays: 7- and 9-yard runs.
- The three touchdown drives against Nevada (the 104th ranked defense in FBS) averaged 2.33 plays and 45.33 yards in length. The only one that began in Iowa’s own territory lasted one play: a 55-yard touchdown run by Kaleb Johnson.
On Saturday, Iowa opened the second half with a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to put the nail in Rutgers’ coffin. Even though it was aided by a pass interference penalty on third and goal at the 14-yard line, it was the best drive of the season for the Hawkeyes.
Kirk Ferentz wants his team to take care of the football, punt, play excellent special teams, and capitalize on mistakes defensively. Rutgers threw a first-quarter interception and coughed up a second-quarter fumble. Both were returned for touchdowns, and the game was effectively over.
That’s why Iowa is dangerous. As bad as the offense is, the defense is equally great -- 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 template of how to lose at Iowa.
First of all, the Wolverines couldn’t generate any pressure on defense, and even Spencer Petras can move the ball down the field if he’s allowed to stand comfortably in the pocket. He has an All-American tight end in Sam LaPorta whose already caught 16 passes for 154 yards this season.
Even if those Iowa drives end more often in field goals than touchdowns, that’s typically good enough for a team that allows just 5.8 points per game.
Meanwhile, J.J. McCarthy struggled to take care of the football against Maryland. He fumbled twice and was fortunate that teammates were there to recover, and the Terrapins also should have had an interception at the goal line.
Michigan gave the ball away once when freshman running back C.J. Stokes fumbled on his only carry.
Michigan only finished the game with one turnover, but it very easily could have been four. If that happens this weekend, Iowa will feast, and Michigan will lose. That’s how the Hawkeyes operate.
Separating 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 a coronation of the Wolverines than it was an actual football contest.
But that has no bearing whatsoever on what happens Saturday.
Just look at the Maryland game. Two weeks before winning the 2021 Big Ten title, Michigan went into College Park and fleeced the Terrapins, 59-18. Ten months later, Maryland marched into Ann Arbor and came within one onside kick of potentially tying or winning the game.
Michigan and Iowa still have many of the same players from last year’s matchup, but that hardly matters. If anything, Hawkeyes who took that beating might have vengeance in mind.
Michigan appears to be a more well-rounded team this season, but Ferentz has a proven formula for winning these types of games. It’s no fluke that it works more often than not -- five of the last six top-five teams to travel to Kinnick Stadium have lost, including Michigan in 2016.
Harbaugh said Monday that Iowa City is where “top-five teams go to die.” And he’s absolutely right.
Michigan has a very talented team, so fans should feel a sense of confidence going into any matchup. But Saturday should still be one of the toughest games of the season.