In November of 2016, Keith Duncan lined up for a last-second, 33-yard field goal against the Michigan Wolverines inside Kinnick Stadium. The kick sailed through the uprights as time expired, and the Hawkeyes upset the number two team in the nation. On Saturday, the Hawkeyes and Wolverines meet in the Big Ten Championship Game, and Michigan again has the number two attached to it. The Wolverines are ranked second in the country again in the next to last college football playoff poll of the season. In what is anticipated to be a defensive battle, the Wolverines bring two of the conference’s leading pass rushers to Indianapolis. Iowa has had a lot of success of their own defensively as well. They are the nation’s fourth best coverage defense and have the conference’s second leading tackler in Jack Campbell.
Michigan’s Defensive Front
The front seven for the Wolverines have been playing at an elite level all season. The team is third in the country in pass rush, and they have top 10 statistics in tackling and rush defense. This group is led by Aidan Hutchinson. He is currently listed as the number one defensive player in the country according to Pro Football Focus. His 13 sacks and 46 quarterback hurries both come in at third-most in the nation in each category. Hutchinson has risen to elite status as an edge rusher for Michigan this year. His name also appears on the top of several NFL mock draft boards. The Hawkeye offensive line has been leaky this season, allowing 17 sacks and 67 pressures on the year. Hutchinson will hurry the quarterback from both edges, and Iowa’s offensive tackles have been responsible for seven of the sacks this year.
Michigan’s other playmaker on the defensive line is David Ojabo. He recorded three pressures and a sack last week against Ohio State, and is second on the team with 11 sacks this season. Ojabo lines up on the opposite edge of Hutchinson, and the two have caused immense chaos at the point of attack. Iowa’s line of scrimmage will be challenged by their pressure on the outside. The game plan might need to incorporate quick throws to athletes like Keagan Johnson on the outside in order to move the ball against the Wolverine front.
Balanced Wolverine Attack
One of the areas of improvement for Michigan this year has been its balanced offense. Last season’s quarterback struggles forced the team to be one dimensional, and their record was indicative of that. In 2020, the Wolverines were outside of the top 50 in both passing and rushing offense ratings. The success of Michigan’s 2021 season starts with their running back duo. Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum both have had incredible seasons to this point. Haskins finished the regular season with 1,232 yards and 18 touchdowns, while Corum has scored 10 touchdowns and is nearing 900 yards. The Wolverines run the ball on 58% of their plays, and the two premier backs average 5.5 yards per carry combined. The ground game has been extremely productive all season. However, what has made it so effective this year is their solid passing attack.
With Cade McNamara at quarterback, Michigan’s passing offense has improved. He has thrown for 2,300 yards and 14 touchdowns this year. He appeared in four games last year, and didn’t throw an interception. Transitioning to him full-time under center has taken this offense up another step. The Wolverines have been able to rely on McNamara’s consistency under center this year, and his overall lack of turnovers. With just three interceptions, he has kept the ball safe and allowed his running backs to open up the passing game. However, Michigan has not faced a top 10 defense since the beginning of October when they traveled to Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes have the tenth overall defense, and fourth rated coverage defense according to Pro Football Focus.
Play Iowa’s Game
To win on Saturday, the Hawkeyes need to continue to play their style of football on both ends of the ball. The Iowa offense has established the run effectively in the last four weeks. Tyler Goodson surpassed the 1,000-yard mark against Nebraska, and is averaging over 120 yards per game in the last four games. He is gaining well over five yards per rush in that time frame, and has been an integral part of the Hawkeye offense. In the other phases of the game, the Iowa defense and special teams units are looking like an offense. In that same four-game stretch, the two units have accounted for 63 of Iowa’s 105 points, 49 of them came in the last two weeks. Special teams coordinator LeVar Woods and defensive coordinator Phil Parker have done an excellent job all season of playing opportunistic football and putting the Hawkeyes in prime position to win football games.
Against Michigan, the trend will need to continue. The Wolverines have a dynamic offense in both phases. However, there’s an angle in this matchup on which Iowa can capitalize. On a per-play basis, Michigan and Iowa have a near zero expected points added (EPA) differential. EPA translates yards to points in the context in which the yardage is gained. The Wolverines offensive EPA per play is 0.156. A positive EPA on offense is good, a negative EPA is good on defense. In this case, it means that Michigan’s offensive productivity is generating an added points expectancy of 0.156 per play. On the other side, Iowa’s defensive EPA is -0.136. That is good for eighth in the country. On a per-play basis, the Hawkeye defense is actually preventing potential added points from their opponent.
When looking at the EPA differential, it is in favor of Michigan by a mere 0.020 points per play. This near offset in EPA between the Hawkeyes and Wolverines points to what could be a very tight battle when the Iowa defense takes the field. Michigan has been explosive this year, but Iowa has been just as good at preventing explosiveness from turning into points.
Heading into Championship Weekend, there are some interesting historical trends both within this matchup, and regarding the rankings. Eight top-three teams have been upset in this season alone. Four of which were Big Ten programs. Purdue beat both the second-ranked Hawkeyes and third-ranked Spartans. Ohio State fell twice as the third-ranked team in the country.
The last time Michigan was ranked this high in the polls was week 10 of the 2016 season. That year, the 9-0 Wolverines had title hopes, but first had to travel to Iowa City. The Hawkeyes upset Jim Harbaugh and company in a low-scoring battle that effectively eliminated Michigan from title contention.
Iowa and Michigan have played seven times since 2009, and the Hawkeyes have won five of the contests. Since Harbaugh took over in 2015, the two teams have played twice. The first was Iowa’s walk-off winner, and the second came in 2019 inside the Big House. Of the two matchups, a grand total of just 40 points have been scored. Iowa and Michigan have traditionally had some of the best defenses in college football, especially of late. Both give up just north of 300 total yards per game, and allow less than five yards per play. The two schools have almost the same scoring defense as well, each allowing about 17 points per game.
Hawkeyes and Wolverines Meet in Big Ten Championship
After a dramatic comeback victory against Nebraska, and with a little help from Minnesota, Iowa is headed back to Indianapolis for the second time. The Hawkeyes just wanted a shot. They got it, and will head to Indianapolis just one game away from a title. Michigan recorded their biggest victory in nearly a decade knocking off the Buckeyes last week. The second-ranked team in the land has Playoff hopes, but there’s one more game to be played. Saturday night, all eyes will turn to Lucas Oil Stadium as two teams fight to win their first Big Ten title since they shared it in 2004. The Hawkeyes and Wolverines meet in the Big Ten Championship in a matchup of great anticipation.