#2 Michigan. #13 Iowa. Big Ten Championship Game.
There's plenty at stake tonight -- with a win, Iowa would claim:
- their first Big Ten championship since 2004
- their first outright Big Ten championship since 1985
- a berth in the Rose Bowl
Not many experts or observers expect Iowa to win the game, though. The Vegas line, which started at Michigan -10.5, has moved up to Michigan -12.5, making them almost two-touchdown favorites over Iowa. The computers strongly favor the Wolverines as well and you'd be hard-pressed to find an analyst or expert picking games who would be so bold as to pick Iowa to win this game.
And, sure, we get it: Michigan doesn't have any clear or obvious weaknesses (unlike Iowa, who has an oozing wound where the offense ought to be). They just routed Ohio State a week ago, ending almost a decade of frustration and staking their own claim for a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines have a strong defense, excellent special teams, and a good offense that was operating at a ridiculously high level against the Buckeyes. And that's the thing: if Michigan plays tonight like they did against Ohio State, Iowa probably doesn't have a chance to win this game. That Michigan team isn't going to lose to many teams in college football, if any. But teams look different from game to game and week to week; there have been plenty of games this season when Michigan didn't look like the world-beaters who overpowered Ohio State.
So what's Iowa's path to victory against Michigan? Well...
Iowa has forced 28 turnovers this season (22 interceptions, 6 fumble recoveries), third-best in the nation. Their turnover margin is +13, also third-best in the nation. Michigan's turnover margin is just +6 and they've only forced 15 turnovers this season... but they also don't turn the ball over. They've given the ball away just nine times this season (five interceptions, four fumbles lost)
But somehow, someway Iowa needs to force some takeaways today and they need to record a positive turnover margin. In their two losses this season, Iowa had a -6 turnover magin (combined). In their ten wins, their turnover margin was a combined +19. They won just one game (Minnesota) when they had a negative turnover margin (-1). Over the last three seasons, Iowa is 22-1 when they finish with a positive turnover margin; their only loss came against Wisconsin in 2019.
As much as possible, Iowa needs to win the battles on defense and special teams. That isn't going to be easy -- the Michigan offense is one of the best Iowa's defense has faced all season and their running game is the best in the Big Ten (and one of the best in the nation outside of the service academies). But Iowa can't afford to give up big plays, nor can they afford to give up long, time-consuming, energy-draining drives -- especially if those drives end in touchdowns. Iowa is not built to keep up in a shootout, unless everyone on the Iowa offense plays the game of their lives.
Likewise, this is going to be one of the few games this year where Iowa isn't going to have decided special teams advantage over their opponent. Caleb Shudak has been a lights-out kicker for Iowa this year... but Jake Moody has done the same for Michigan. Shudak made 22/25 field goals; Moody made 22/24. Shudak does have a bit more experience attempting (and making) long range kicks, but otherwise the difference between the two is minimal. Similarly, Michigan and Iowa rank 4th and 6th, respectively, in the Big Ten in punting; there hasn't been a lot of difference in what Brad Robbins and Tory Taylor have done. Michigan also leads the league in limiting kickoff returns (just 12 yards per return) and they're fifth in the Big Ten in opponent punt returns (5.9 yards per return). On paper, there are no clear advantages for Iowa to exploit in special teams -- but they need to try and find opportunities to make big plays on special teams anyway.
Iowa's offensive line has been poor for much of this year, but they've shown some signs of improvement over the last month in Iowa's four-game winning streak. Slowing down a Michigan pass rush that features Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Aidan Hutchinson and his equally-dangerous partner-in-crime David Ojabo is going to be their toughest task this season. They're not going to have a perfect game against that duo (or the rest of the Michigan front seven), but they need to limit the damage. Iowa can't be operating in second-and-long or third-and-long on a consistent basis, either. And the more often Petras gets hit, the more likely he is to turn the ball over (see: the Wisconsin game), which could be absolutely devastating.
RUN THE DANG BALL, BRIAN
Michigan's run defense is good -- but it's not elite (though it was last week against Ohio State, limiting the Buckeyes to just 64 yards on 30 attempts). They've given up almost 1500 yards on the ground this year and a 3.55 yards per carry attempt, which rank near the middle of the Big Ten. But their run defense stats are also a bit skewed by their pass rush numbers since sack yardage counts against the running game in college football; with sack yards removed, Michigan has almost 4.5 yards per carry to opponents this season. Michigan State had tremendous success running the ball on Michigan, and Rutgers and Maryland did some positive things on the ground as well. If Iowa can get the inside zone running game on track and attack Michigan's linebackers, they could find some offensive success.
Michigan's offense is going to move the ball in this game and they're probably going to find themselves with scoring opportunities on a few occasions. Iowa needs to limit them to field goals rather than touchdowns when those opportunities do arise. Michigan scored on almost 92% of their red zone trips this season (55/60), but they were held to field goals on 18 of those 55 scoring trips. As much as possible, Iowa needs limit them to three points rather than seven.
On the flip side, when Iowa has an opportunity to score points and get a field goal, they need to make it. I don't think they should necessarily go for three in every circumstance -- scoring opportunities could be limited for Iowa, so some situational aggressiveness could be imperative in terms of trying for a touchdown rather than taking a safe field goal -- but with Iowa's strength on defense and special teams, there are worse approaches than taking what you can get and biding your time. Iowa racked up field goal after field goal in their last two games, before finally busting out with some touchdowns. Field goals might be able to keep Iowa in the game until they can find a way to score a touchdown.
Sustained offensive drives probably aren't going to be a regular occurrence for Iowa in this game. (They sure haven't been for the preceding 12 games this season and most of those were against defenses weaker than the Michigan defense that's going to show up on Saturday night.) So Iowa needs to be able to hit a big play or two in order to get yards in big chunks and (hopefully) points. Something like this:
I mean, it (almost) worked the last time Iowa was in the Big Ten Championship Game...
Do all that and for the first time in 17 years, we might be able to once again call Iowa "Big Ten Champions."
GO IOWA AWESOME