The ultimate Big Ten championship preview: It's David (Iowa) vs. Goliath (Michigan)
One can imagine an accounting firm trying to square the Iowa football books this season:
- 18.0 ppg (124th of 133 FBS teams)
- 243.6 ypg (133rd)
- Deacon Hill’s QB rating, 91.29, worst among all FBS qualifying quarterbacks
“That can’t be right. Run it again.”
* Stereotypical nerdy guy taps keyboard *
No matter how many times one runs the numbers, the Big Ten West spits out the Hawkeyes as its champion.
If you factor in injuries to the team’s original starting quarterback, top 2 tight ends and best playmaker, then run multiple simulations, you’d probably need a cheat code to get Iowa to 10-2 even once.
But here the Hawkeyes are, set to meet mighty Michigan in the B1G championship game Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Kirk Ferentz’s program lost this very matchup 42-3 just 2 years ago. The odds won’t be any better this time. No. 2 Michigan (12-0) is favored by 23.5 points and given a 92.6% chance of winning by ESPN’s Matchup Predictor.
Nonetheless, Iowa fans will believe and Michigan fans will worry when FOX’s broadcast hits the airwaves at 8 p.m.
For several weeks now, players and coaches on both sides have been worked up over perceived and actual slights from outside the sacred halls of their programs. The atmosphere will be emotionally charged Saturday night, and thus unstable and unpredictable. Therein lies the faint possibility that this final East-West league title game might be different than so many of its 9 predecessors.
No. 16 Iowa can endear itself to a national audience simply by putting up a good fight. Michigan, embroiled in a cheating scandal, gets tagged with the villain label whether it wants it or not. The players might insist they are rightfully defending the honor of 9th-year coach Jim Harbaugh and their institution. But the Wolverines are the bad guys to those who don’t bleed maize and blue, a mantle they’ve embraced, proudly if grudgingly.
Saturday’s game will be either a moving underdog story or a 6th straight anticlimactic coronation of the East champ. The West representative hasn’t hung within 1 score in this matchup since 2017, and has never won it.
Iowa winning, or even putting up a decent fight, isn’t probable. But neither is its 10-2 record. Phil Parker’s defense, Tory Taylor’s punting and some rare but timely big plays have carried the Hawkeyes this far. If they can keep this a low-scoring affair, fans and the College Football Playoff committee members might have to stay up late and enjoy/suffer through Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt for the duration.
Improbable Iowa: David
Rocky, Rudy or the ultimate biblical hero … Iowa fits the underdog narrative. It has less weaponry than David with his slingshot.
Has any college football team ever reached 10 wins in a season with fewer than Iowa’s 216 points through 12 games? (A review of data on sportsreference.com shows only 1 less-potent 10-win team in the histories of the current 14 B1G members. Northwestern averaged 16.4 points while going 10-1-3 in 1903. Even that squad had 223 points through its first 12 games while starting 10-0-2.)
Credit Parker, Ferentz’s right hand man and current Broyles Award finalist, who has been on staff for all 25 of Ferentz’s years as head coach and has been his defensive coordinator since 2012.
No other coaching tag team can match what this one has done this season. Teams that average 18 points per game don’t notch double-digit victories. Not even Iowa. Ferentz has reached 10 wins 8 times with the Hawkeyes, and the previous low-scorers in that group tallied 277 points through 12 games in 2009 and 24 more in an Orange Bowl victory over Ga. Tech. Hayden Fry had 3 10-win seasons at Iowa, with the lowest scoring squad putting up 330 points in 1991.
Despite all his success, Ferentz suffered the indignity of having his son, Brian, fired as offensive coordinator during the season. Yet Brian remains on the sideline amid the outside mockery, serving out his term, week after week. Interim AD Beth Goetz decided she couldn’t wait for the previously imposed 25 ppg ultimatum to run its course.
Kirk Ferentz has delivered a few emotional postgame statements that thinly veil how he feels about the whole situation. The longest tenured current FBS head coach might know a bit more than anyone else about how things have to work, football-wise, to succeed in Iowa City. He’s never had Michigan’s resources, and never will. It’ll only get tougher in the 18-team, no-divisions Big Ten to come.
Sure, Brian had to go, or at least be reassigned. But this could have been handled way better. … At least it’ll provide those Hawkeyes in Saturday’s domed arena with a rallying cry.
Unstoppable Michigan: Goliath
It’ll take more than 1 stone to the forehead to put down this juggernaut. The Wolverines have won 24 straight games against B1G foes, most notably 3 straight over hated rival Ohio State. Including the past 2 league title games, they’ve won 30 straight outside of the Playoff — which they’ll surely make for a 3rd straight time with a win Saturday.
With the best scoring defense in the country (10.3 ppg) and a +14 turnover margin, the Wolverines will not beat themselves. They’ve rolled through all comers despite Harbaugh missing 6 games with a pair of 3-game suspensions bookending the regular season. As with Ferentz at Iowa, some of the flak has come from direct supervisors, as the opening 3-game ban was imposed by the university itself.
Regardless of Harbaugh’s direct guilt or innocence in sign-stealing or other nefarious activities, he’s taken the fall as the man at the top of the organizational chart. That’s NCAA rules. But he’s getting one heck of a return on the national melodrama. He’ll be back on the Michigan sideline to a hero’s welcome from his players and assistants, who’ve been shouting out postgame love to him as he holed up at home or in hotel rooms to watch the past 3 victories.
There may be a collective eye-roll from the rest of the football-loving world, but the Michigan Men inside the locker room aren’t faking their passion. RB Blake Corum and a bunch of his teammates are on a quest to win Michigan’s first national title since 1997 before moving on to the NFL. They want it for Harbaugh, the staff, each other and themselves. It’ll be a last shot for many of those involved.
How they got here
Michigan: The Wolverines beat up on 3 non-Power 5 weaklings and 6 Big Ten weaklings before being challenged at all. Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State put up a fight down the stretch, but Michigan won by 9, 7 and 6 points to finish undefeated.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes got stonewalled 31-0 at Penn State. The other loss was brutal in another way, 12-10 at home to Minnesota on 4 FGs by Dragan Kesich. Hill lost 2 fumbles and threw a pick. Iowa still would have won, but Cooper DeJean’s late-game punt return TD was wiped off the board by a penalty flag. The Hawkeyes eked past Illinois and Nebraska by 5 combined points to close the season. Late-game heroics were involved both times. In the second half of the season, Iowa has won 4 games while scoring 15 or fewer points, including the past 2.
The teams have played 6 common B1G opponents: Penn State, Rutgers, Michigan State, Minnesota, Purdue, Nebraska. Michigan has beaten them all, obviously, outscoring them 242-52. Iowa is 4-2 vs. those teams, with a collective margin of 91-83.
Iowa’s 2 losses represent the glaring gap between it and Michigan. The Wolverines ripped the Golden Gophers 52-10 just 2 weeks before the Hawks’ 12-10 loss to them. The Penn State comparison is even more damning:
Iowa at Penn State, 31-0 loss: Transfer quarterback Cade McNamara — from Michigan of all places — was still leading the Hawkeyes at the time (Week 4). He went 5-of-14 for 42 yards as the Hawks were held to 76 yards and 4 first downs, and also lost 4 fumbles. Fellow Michigan transfer Erick All made 3 receptions for 35 yards. Within the next couple of weeks, both McNamara and All suffered season-ending injuries. Drew Allar threw for 4 TDs as Iowa gave up more than 16 points for the only time this season. Penn State’s 397 yards were also the most against Iowa this season.
Michigan at Penn State, 24-15 win: Unlike Iowa, which was held to 20 rushing yards by the Nittany Lions, Michigan was able to out-grind the Lions. It ran the ball on its final 32 official plays, and finished with 227 rushing yards while passing for only 60. The Wolverines held the Lions to 238 yards.
Michigan leads the all-time series 44-15-4 and has won 3 straight, including a 27-14 regular-season road victory last year. Harbaugh is 3-1 vs. Ferentz, losing 14-13 in 2016.
Before Michigan’s current streak, Iowa had won 5 of 6 between 2009 and 2016. During Ferentz’s time as head coach, the Hawkeyes are 7-8 in the series.
When Iowa has the ball
The Hawkeyes will try to pound away with Kaleb Johnson and Leshon Williams, who is coming off a 111-yard performance against a tough Nebraska run defense that, statistically, is the equal of Michigan’s. LB Junior Colson leads a front 7 for Michigan DC Jesse Minter that has no soft spots.
Iowa will be happy to grind out a few first downs and exchange punts early on. The longer it can keep the score at 0-0 and play the field position game, the better. Patience has paid off in recent weeks: Johnson had a 30-yard TD run for the winning points in Week 12; Williams had a 53-yard scamper against the Huskers.
When Hill must throw, he’ll look for tight ends Steven Stilianos and Addison Ostrenga, the next men up after All and Luke Lachey were lost to injuries in the first half of the season. Veteran WR Nico Ragaini is the other main target.
Since replacing McNamara, Hill has thrown for under 100 yards in 3 games and over 200 only once. He’s completing just 48.3% of his passes with more interceptions (6) than TDs thrown (5). In his defense, the 6-3, 260-pound redshirt sophomore sometimes needs to pull off miracles just to get the ball away.
Hill is a first-year transfer after spending 2 seasons at Wisconsin, where he made 1 appearance and never threw a pass. He and the Hawkeyes will have to avoid turnovers, and that won’t be easy given Michigan’s pass rush and ball-hawking secondary. The Wolverines lead the Big Ten with 16 interceptions, 5 of them by senior Mike Sainristil, a former wide receiver who returned 2 of those picks for touchdowns. Junior Rod Moore and sophomores Will Johnson (questionable with a leg injury) and Keon Sabb also play tight coverage and have a nose for the ball.
Iowa is -1 in turnover margin, having lost 7 fumbles and 9 interceptions. Michigan is +14. The Hawkeyes can’t afford for those numbers to hold true. Boring as it may be, Brian Ferentz must focus on ball control and ball protection in his play calling.
Yards will not come easy. Michigan is No. 2 in the FBS in total defense (246.8 ypg), No. 7 against the run and No. 4 against the pass. This could be the Penn State game all over again for Iowa. This is definitely David vs. Goliath.
When Michigan has the ball
Michigan brings a less productive offense but a healthy Blake Corum to the B1G title game this year, where it’ll face the nation’s No. 4 scoring defense (12.2 pgg) and No. 2 total defense in terms of yards per play allowed (4.04).
Corum enters Saturday’s game 24 rushing yards short of 1,000 after posting 1,463 last year before missing the postseason with a knee injury. The bad news for Iowa is that Corum has a nation-leading 22 rushing touchdowns and is averaging 107.3 yards over the past 3 weekends.
JJ McCarthy, the junior QB with the 5-star pedigree, has played a diminished role during Harbaugh’s latest suspension. He has only 1 TD pass while never throwing for even 150 yards over that 3-game stretch. His run game has been limited during that time as well.
Still, McCarthy has weapons and protection Hill can only dream of. WRs Roman Wilson and Cornelius Johnson, plus tight end Colston Loveland, all have 500+ receiving yards — no one on Iowa has topped 300. (The injured All had 299 in 7 games. Ragaini has 26 catches for 227 yards.) Michigan has allowed 14 sacks, Iowa 24.
Offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore showed some creativity in last week’s 30-24 victory over the Buckeyes. As acting head coach, he snuck backup QB Alex Orji into the game for a 20-yard keeper and also dialed up a halfback pass good for a 34-yard gain.
Michigan has plenty of firepower to call upon when needed.
LB Jay Higgins spearheads Iowa’s defense with 141 tackles, the most in the Power 5 and No. 2 in the FBS.
Special teams, injuries, etc.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes will be without DB and star return man DeJean, who is their best playmaker even though he doesn’t play offense. They’ve gotten by without him the past couple weeks, but he’ll be sorely missed.
Iowa’s depth chart doesn’t show any key players returning, though Lachey — 10 weeks removed from his right ankle injury — might have a slight shot to play.
The special teams won’t be very special without DeJean, and the kicking has been especially shaky the past 2 weeks. Drew Stevens had 3 kicks blocked (2 FGs, 1 PAT) and missed another, causing Kirk Ferentz to put senior Marshall Meeder in to kick the walk-off 38-yarder against the Huskers.
Taylor is the busiest and most celebrated punter in the B1G, if not the country. By the stats, he would give the Hawkeyes a 2.5-yard boost on every exchange of punts vs. Michigan’s Tommy Doman.
As for intangibles, Iowa does have the nothing-to-lose freedom that comes with being a massive underdog.
Michigan: The Wolverines will miss OL Zak Zinter, who went down with a broken leg against Ohio State, but Trente Jones is a highly experienced reserve/6th man. Key DB Johnson is questionable after getting dinged up last week.
As for special teams, transfer kicker James Turner has been almost as reliable as predecessor Jake Moody, going 12-of-14 on field goals and 56-of-57 on PATs.
Michigan should have some other miscellaneous advantages. With superior athletes, the Wolverines will benefit from the fast track and perfect conditions an indoor venue provides. It also has a ton more recent big-game experience.
Michigan has come too far to let its guard down now.
To the outside world, the Wolverines seem to be playing victim despite at least some in their ranks having been perpetrators of sign-stealing and other crimes. But there’s no denying the saga has galvanized Big Blue Nation. The program is on a mission.
As a neutral observer, I’d love to see Iowa hang around for a while and make the game interesting. The Hawkeyes might for a quarter or so.
But Goliath isn’t going down this time. Michigan will advance head-on into the Playoff.
Michigan 24, Iowa 3