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INDIANAPOLIS — Kirk Ferentz is well aware of the challenge his 13th-ranked Hawkeyes (10-2) will face against No. 2 Michigan (11-1) in the Big Ten championship game.
“They're extremely talented in all phases,” Ferentz said. “They have good depth. Very talented and well-coached.”
Here’s what to watch for as Iowa goes for the upset and a Big Ten title (7 p.m., Fox).
Iowa offense vs. Michigan defense
The biggest question on this side of the ball will be on the offensive and defensive lines. Iowa has seen improvements from its young offensive line, and it shows with the Hawkeyes’ improved running game in November.
However, Michigan’s defensive front is much more formidable than the four groups Iowa has seen during the four-game winning streak — Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois and Nebraska.
On one side, Aidan Hutchinson is in the conversation for the Heisman Trophy and has a Big Ten-high 13 sacks in 2021.
Then on the other side, David Ojabo also is a projected first-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft. He has 11 sacks.
Facing one of those players would be enough of a challenge.
When Iowa faced Purdue, the Boilermakers’ George Karlaftis wreaked havoc on Iowa’s offensive line. Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras suffered four sacks. Karlaftis was responsible for only one of them, but the star defensive end also had three quarterback hurries.
Petras struggled mightily with the defensive pressure, uncharacteristically throwing three interceptions in the final four minutes.
Petras will be starting again Saturday, Ferentz said. He’ll need more help from the offensive line and running game than the last time Iowa faced an elite defensive end. Iowa is well aware of that.
“We’ve got to run the ball if we want to win the game,” running back Tyler Goodson said.
Iowa defense vs. Michigan offense
Iowa’s defense hasn’t been a major area of concern for most of 2021. ESPN’s Football Power Index ranks the unit fifth in the country in efficiency.
The Hawkeyes’ first-down defense has shown some recent vulnerability, though.
Nebraska, which ousted much of its offensive staff earlier in the season, averaged 8.4 yards per play on first down against Iowa last week.
The Hawkeyes and Huskers each had 14 third-down attempts. Iowa, on average, had to go 8.2 yards for a first down. Nebraska, on the other hand, needed 4.2 yards.
Iowa made up for it by stopping Nebraska six of nine times when the Huskers had 4 or fewer yards to gain. It’s unrealistic to rely on that against a Michigan team with a stout offensive line and highly effective running game.
Turnovers will be another key between Iowa’s defense and Michigan’s offense.
The Hawkeyes have 27 takeaways in 2021. That’s tied for the most among Power Five teams.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, only have nine giveaways. That’s tied for the second-fewest among Power Five teams.
What’s at stake
Iowa hasn’t played a game with this much at stake since 2015. A win would give Iowa its first outright Big Ten title since 1985 and its first trip to the Rose Bowl since 2015.
With a loss, Iowa’s most likely destination would be the Citrus Bowl, although the Peach Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and Outback Bowl wouldn’t be totally out of the mix.
Iowa can hang another banner in the Hansen Football Performance Center either way. Saturday will determine whether it says “Big Ten West champions” or “Big Ten champions.” The latter has a better ring to it.
Big Ten championship prediction
If everything goes right, Iowa is capable of winning this game. But teams that take care of the ball and pressure Iowa’s quarterbacks have given the Hawkeyes problems in 2021. Michigan does both.
Michigan 31, Iowa 17.
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