Iowa Football

No. 14 Iowa at No. 19 Michigan: The Big Analysis

The Hawkeyes are talented enough, veteran enough to win at Michigan Stadium

No. 14 Iowa travels to Michigan Stadium to take on No. 19 Michigan this Saturday. (Original photo: USA TODAY Sports)
No. 14 Iowa travels to Michigan Stadium to take on No. 19 Michigan this Saturday. (Original photo: USA TODAY Sports)

It’s the time of year to find out what exactly your team is.

Oddly, No. 14 Iowa (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) and No. 19 Michigan (3-1, 1-1) have had two common opponents with Middle Tennessee State and Rutgers.

Throw those out, obviously.

In their two games that mattered, the Hawkeyes found a way and Michigan was a chipmunk under a tractor tire. Iowa tipped Iowa State, 18-17, in Ames, with an unforced error (a flubbed punt return) sealing the game. Wisconsin mauled Michigan so thoroughly it knocked the offensive coordinator out of the press box and onto the field. (Michigan OC Josh Gattis moved from the press box to the field after the Wisconsin result, so only figuratively knocked out of the press box.)

The most intriguing matchup in this game? Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown vs. Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. Brown loves the players and talent that Michigan attracts and uses those resources well. Ferentz’s offense has performed exactly how you’d want it to perform in one game against a Big 12 contender and three games against leftovers.

Seriously, Iowa averages 33.5 points a game, which is on track for the most since 2002 (37.2).

Here are the Wolverines

1. The line of scrimmage — Yes, Michigan played Wisconsin and Jonathan Taylor (Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz: “I know where my vote for best running back in the country would go right now.”) and Army, a triple option, flexbone spider web for defensive coordinators.

So, it’s game 5 and October and no one really knows if the Wolverines can stop the run. They sit 13th in the league at 168.0 yards allowed per game. Offensively, UM is 10th at 130.5 yards a game.

 

Why does this matter? Time of possession. Yes, you thought that was a dead stat, with the proliferation of spread offenses that push pace and speed through yards.

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It’s a dead stat until it pins you. Iowa is fifth in the country at 36:06 per game. Competition being what it’s been, Iowa has showed this year that it’s a serious line of scrimmage team. Michigan hasn’t.

2. Bombs awayIowa still is not 100 percent in the secondary. With returning starters Michael Ojemudia and Matt Hannkins and returning backups Julius Brents and Riley Moss, redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson probably didn’t expect to see a lot of time this season as a true corner. He’ll start his third game this week.

Safety has been the same, with Jack Koerner moving into the free spot with freshman Kaevon Merriweather (foot) out the last three games.

Michigan has four Porsches at wide receiver — Tarik Black, Nico Collins, Ronnie Bell and Donovan Peoples-Jones. Can the Wolverines protect QB Shea Patterson enough to allow that foursome to do damage? Of course, they can.

This just in: Iowa has to get more out of pass rush than the opponent sending three players to block defensive end A.J. Epenesa. There are one-on-one battles that Iowa needs to start winning.

3. Man-to-man — Brown mostly has his secondary in man coverage. He doesn’t want to allow receivers any free space. Iowa receivers have been better this season at getting off the line of scrimmage, but that’s going to be tested. The Wolverines will disrupt the timing in Iowa’s passing game. Theoretically, this should help Michigan find a pass rush (7.0 sacks so far in 2019). Brown mixes fronts quite a bit. There’s risk to moving fronts. It’s up to Brian Ferentz to find the right switch and make the Wolverines pay.

4. Press box or field? — It’s one of the dumbest things in sports, the OC in the press box or on the field. Brian Ferentz found out the hard way, drawing headlines for hitting for the cussing cycle in 2017.

Gattis moved to the field last week after calling the first three games of his Michigan tenure from the press box.

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Is it bad or just really, really, really stupid that Michigan needed four games and a whupping at Wisconsin to figure this out? Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh made sense of it, saying there were no substitution errors last week vs. Rutgers.

Michigan football makes something like $150 million in revenue. Seems like the telecommuting question would be answered in the interview.

5. Relevant numbers — Yes, Wisconsin has a big, fearsome offensive line and maybe the best RB in college football, but Michigan helped out with four turnovers against the Badgers. Michigan’s minus-4 turnover margin is tied for 107th in the country. Connecticut is in that group. That’s bad. A defense has to force the turnovers, but Michigan’s seven fumbles, all in the first three games, is 125th in the country, just ahead of Nebraska’s nine.

Hanging with the Hawkeyes

1. Non-conference MVPs — Quarterback Nate Stanley and defensive coordinator Phil Parker.

Stanley has been near perfect. Yes, he’s missed a few bombs. No, it hasn’t affected the result of any game (Iowa State was close, but the meteor missed earth and you didn’t even know).

Most impressive? It’s easy to look at Iowa’s four receivers — Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Tyrone Tracy and Nico Ragaini — and note the improvement they’ve made in their games. It’s been substantial. Somewhere in that, the quarterback gets some credit.

 

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Communication and leadership, the stuff we can’t see or quantify, seems to be thriving. Guess where that should help? In a big stadium on the road.

It feels like Parker could coach scarecrows into a decent cover 4 secondary. That’s not a punt on the reserves in the secondary. Johnson and Koerner came up big a few times in Ames. It’s simply great coaching when you’re down to your No. 5 corner on the road against a proven QB. Now, do it again this week.

2. Yeah, the depth on the offensive line — What’s not to like there? You only knew guard Kyler Schott before the season began if 1) your last name is Schott or 2) if you’re from the North Linn school district. Offensive line coach Tim Polasek has fit the pieces together brilliantly. Also, the Hawkeyes have brought along some depth. It feels like something snapped with the O-line a few years ago and Iowa is now hyper-vigilant about O-line depth.

Yes, you’re probably wondering about cohesion. It hasn’t seemed to have been much of a problem. Of course, it’s the state championship heavyweight final this week.

3. Pass rush — What’s missing from last year? Anthony Nelson. Iowa doesn’t have a 6-7, 275-pound pass rusher and overall fantastic football player like Nelson just waiting in the wings. You knew his early departure would be a thing. How big of a thing? Well, Iowa is No. 5 in the country in total defense, so perhaps this is a greedy, nitpicking type of a point, but Iowa sure could use some clarity at No. 3 defensive end.

Then again, pass rush isn’t always about the quantifiable. This is where A.J. Epenesa’s presence is worth its weight in gold.

4. The Hawkeyes aren’t “TE U” this year — You knew there would be a drop-off. T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant were two of the best to walk through and the NFL is paying them handsomely.

Nate Wieting and Shaun Beyer are doing their jobs when they’re called on, but that’s not a lot. They’ve combined for 12 targets this year. Meanwhile, Iowa’s distribution looks more like a team with good wide receivers. With Smith-Marsette leading with 27, wide receivers occupy the top four spots for targets with running backs taking up the next two and then TEs.

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This isn’t an indictment of the TEs. But can Iowa attack linebackers with mismatches? Maybe this game, maybe with Michigan playing a fairly young and new middle linebacker in Cam McGrone?

5. Relevant numbers — This probably is a product of playing run-heavy Army and Wisconsin, but the Wolverines are 119th in the country in opponent completion percentage, allowing 67.4 percent (58 of 86). Wisconsin and Iowa are Nos. 1 and 2 in the Big Ten and Nos. 2 and 3 in the nation in time of possession (36:43 for UW and 36:07 for Iowa). That’s the football equivalent of getting pinned.

Prediction

Iowa 27, Michigan 17

Iowa is talented enough and veteran enough in the right spots to win what might be one of the program’s biggest road games in a long time.

Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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