Alex Hickey: Iowa's odds against Michigan boil down to 1 simple question
Can Iowa close a 39-point gap with Michigan from last December?
That is the question Saturday’s Big Ten championship game rematch at Kinnick Stadium boils down to. The Wolverines pounded the Hawkeyes 42-3 to clinch a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Yes, teams change from year to year. But in the case of these 2 rosters, there’s a surprising amount of continuity on offense.
Michigan returned 87% of its offensive production from last season, which rates 13th in the country. Iowa brought back 84% of its production, which is 16th.
That stat, of course, is better news for the Wolverines than the Hawkeyes. Michigan is second in the country in scoring and 19th in total offense. Iowa is 120th in scoring and 131st in total offense.
It’s not unprecedented for a Big Ten team to turn the tables so soon after a blowout. In 2018, Illinois lost 46-7 to Purdue before beating the Boilermakers the next year.
But this year’s Wolverines aren’t exactly the 2019 Boilermakers, who went 4-8. Michigan is No. 4 in the country and a legitimate contender to get back to the College Football Playoff.
The task ahead for Iowa is daunting. It’s not impossible — but it’s also not probable.
What’s different from December?
Michigan quarterback JJ McCarthy is the most obvious difference for either team from an offensive perspective. He took over for incumbent Cade McNamara after steamrolling Hawaii in Week 2.
In the long term, McCarthy’s ability to run adds an additional element of explosiveness to Michigan’s offense. However, Maryland did a pretty good job of containing that last week, holding him to 5 yards on 5 run attempts. (The Terps didn’t do quite so well bottling up running back Blake Corum, who ran for 243 yards.)
McCarthy is more of a threat to push the ball downfield that McNamara was, averaging 10.2 yards per attempt in his career to McNamara’s 7.5.
But McCarthy’s game could also be one of the elements helping the Hawkeyes chip away at that 39-point gap.
He’s more of a risk-taker than McNamara, which is the primary reason why their quarterback competition carried over into the regular season. And Iowa’s defense is built to capitalize any time a quarterback makes anything less than the best available decision. The Hawkeyes scored 2 defensive touchdowns in their 27-10 win at Rutgers, including Cooper DeJean’s 45-yard interception return.
McCarthy has yet to throw an interception this season, because he has not yet encountered a capable enough defense to pick him off. Iowa changes that equation in a big way. Even McNamara, ever the competent game manager, was picked off by the Hawkeyes in Indianapolis.
Iowa’s problem in December was that its offense could not take advantage of the aid provided by its defense, which held the Wolverines to 14 points in the first half.
And that’s where things have not changed at all.
What does it take to be No. 131?
Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz is no doubt cursing the existence of James Madison. Not the short guy who wrote the Constitution, but the newest member of the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The Dukes raised the number of FBS teams up to 131, making Iowa’s offense the first in college football history to find itself in 131st place. And with Nevada and FCS South Dakota State already behind Iowa on the schedule, it’s fair to wonder how much growth the Hawkeyes can achieve.
Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras is 125th in completion percentage (50.5%), 124th in yards per game (131) and 124th in yards per attempt (5.6). And none of those is the most troubling Iowa quarterback stat this year.
For that, you must go with the fact that Petras is the only Hawkeye quarterback to attempt a pass this year. As bad as it’s been, Kirk Ferentz believes this is the best option available to him. And he’s probably not wrong. Petras was statistically better than backup Alex Padilla in every category last year.
Petras is not a game-changing quarterback, unless he’s changing it in favor of the opposing defense. Offensive improvement for Iowa is contingent on the running game.
Here, there is some reason for optimism. Freshman Kaleb Johnson showed some burst against Nevada, rushing for 107 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 7 carries. Leshon Williams averaged 5.8 yards per carry with a touchdown at Rutgers.
But Iowa’s rushing average is still bogged down by its performances against South Dakota State and Iowa State. The Hawks are 118th nationally with 3 yards per carry. Iowa has lost 102 yards on tackles for loss, which rates 93rd in the country.
The offensive line isn’t getting it done, and that looms as the biggest issue against Michigan. Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo may be gone, but Jim Harbaugh has another solid defensive front anchored by tackle Mazi Smith.
A narrow path to victory
If Iowa is going to flip the script completely from last season, this game has to play out in a very specific manner.
The Hawkeyes need to win the turnover battle. But they also need those takeaways to take place on Michigan’s side of the 50, either creating a short field or leading directly to a defensive touchdown.
It is doable. Iowa is only allowing 2.2 yards per carry, so the Hawks may be stout enough to dare Michigan to beat them through the air. And defensive coordinator Phil Parker can do some things that will confuse a quarterback as inexperienced as McCarthy.
It’s also worth noting that this is Michigan’s first road game this season. The 2022 Wolverines haven’t dealt with a hostile atmosphere. McCarthy hasn’t battled the unique set of nerves that hit when playing on the road. Pressure can begin to mount if Michigan gifts Iowa an early lead.
The possibility of that outcome makes this a game worth watching. But Iowa’s offensive limitations may eventually make you thankful for the remote control.