Michigan Visits Kinnick Stadium as a Top Five Team

Daniel Murray hit a 31-yard field goal with one second remaining to beat third-ranked Penn State in 2008. Tyler Sash lateraled an interception to Micah Hyde who took it 66 yards to the end zone en route to a 37-6 thrashing of fifth-ranked Michigan State in 2010. Kieth Duncan walked off second-ranked Michigan in 2016 with a 33-yard game-winning field goal followed by a field rush at Kinnick Stadium. A five-touchdown performance from Nate Stanley combined with Josh Jackson’s three interceptions gave the Hawkeyes a 31-point beatdown of the third-ranked Buckeyes in 2017. Last season, Spencer Petras tossed a 44-yard go-ahead touchdown pass that lifted Iowa to a three-point victory over fourth-ranked Penn State.

Those victories represent the outcomes of five of the last six times a top-five team traveled to Kinnick Stadium. The results weren’t favorable for the visiting team. Iowa’s lone loss to a top-five team at home since 2008 came against Penn State in 2017 on the final play of the game.

This weekend, the Michigan Wolverines will enter Kinnick Stadium as a top-five team in the nation – number four overall to be exact. It will be a rematch of last year’s one-sided Big Ten Championship game where Michigan rode an easy win into the College Football Playoff. The players inside the Hawkeye football facilities have been walking by televisions showing that game on repeat all week. The constant reminder of their 39-point loss is very present in the minds of Iowa’s personnel as they prepare for one of the biggest games of this season. Michigan is making its return to Kinnick Stadium as a top-five team for the first time since 2016. A place where, according to Wolverine head coach Jim Harbaugh, “top five teams go to die”. He experienced that firsthand six seasons ago.

Top Defense in the Nation

Other than the opponent’s top five ranking in each of those five aforementioned victories, the commonality between them all was the way Iowa’s defense played. The Hawkeyes recorded 15 total takeaways in those five games and 45 total points off of turnovers. The Hawkeye defense allowed an average of just 17 points per game.

This season, Iowa’s defense is on pace to be one of Phil Parker’s best since becoming defensive coordinator in 2012. Through four weeks, Iowa has allowed just 5.8 points per game, the best in the country. The 10 points allowed against Rutgers last week were the most all season and the only game where they allowed a first-quarter score. In fact, the Scarlet Knights’ lone touchdown actually shouldn’t have counted. The snap occurred after the play clock expired, but was not called on the field. Regardless, their execution on defense has been among the best in the country. 

Containing Blake Corum

The Hawkeyes have yet to allow a rushing touchdown on defense this season. Michigan tailback Blake Corum will be looking to change that this weekend. Corum is having one of the best early seasons in the country at his position and is off a 236-yard performance against Maryland last week. He touched the ball 29 times and scored two touchdowns. Iowa has allowed just eight run plays of more than 10 yards this season. Corum has 15 himself on the year, six of them came against the Terrapins.

Pro Football Focus ranks Iowa as the second-best run defense in the nation. The group has allowed just 73 rush yards per game. Corum will be one of the best running backs this Hawkeye team will face in 2022. A path to victory in this contest will begin with containing Corum and early-down defensive success rate. This season, Iowa is ninth nationally in rush defense success rate, at 27.7%. This success rate equates to the percentage of plays given up where the opposing offense generated net positive expected points added (EPA). EPA is a measure that translates yardage to points in context on a per-play basis.

Iowa’s Path to Victory

Establish the Run

Iowa has run the ball effectively in the last few games. True freshman Kaleb Johnson has been solid in the last two games, averaging 7.3 yards per rush. Johnson entered the program as a four-star, and he has taken advantage of his opportunity early on. He is reminiscent of Tyler Goodson’s emergence as the premiere tailback during the 2019 season. Like Goodson, Johnson is coming off of the depth chart at the number two position and making a great impression as a true freshman early in the season. 

The Wolverine defense led by defensive coordinator Jesse Minter has allowed just 11 points per game on the year. In the first three games, it allowed just 195 yards per contest. Their competition in those first three games was insignificant, but they did exactly what they were supposed to do against those teams. Their defense was dominant. Last week against the Terrapins, that changed. Michigan allowed 400 total yards and showed some weaknesses in their protection. The secondary allowed seven passes of more than 15 yards, including three of over 25 yards. 

A victory will begin with a battle up front in the way that Maryland began to do last week. The Terrapins gained an average of 7.5 yards on first down in the Big House last Saturday. They were noticeably competitive with Michigan’s defensive front, and that directly translated to a close game outcome. The Terrapins averaged 5.6 yards per rush on first down, while 75% of their plays were considered “non-passing downs”. Michigan won the game, but Maryland showed ways to be successful against their defense. Iowa’s offensive line has been improving this season, and the run game has followed suit. Winning the physical battle up front and chipping away on the ground will be one of the pieces required in this matchup. The other is field position.

Field Position

In Iowa’s 2016 upset over Michigan in Kinnick Stadium, they shut down what was one of the more dominant offenses in the conference. Harbaugh’s team averaged well over 400 yards per game that season, but were held to just 201 in that contest. Iowa was able to slow the game down and play their style of football. The same thing needs to happen this weekend. Michigan has been averaging nearly 500 yards of offense per game this season. The Hawkeye defense is allowing just 230 yards.

Parker’s defense will give Michigan its toughest test of the year. On a yards-per-play basis, the best defense Michigan has played this season was Maryland. The Terrapins allow an average of 5.2 yards per attempt, ranking outside the top 50 nationally. Iowa has the second-best defense in the country in that category, giving up a mere 3.4 yards per play. For Iowa to take down their sixth top-five team at home since 2008, it will come down to early down defense, field position, and an ability to establish the line of scrimmage and run game.

Michigan Returns to Kinnick Stadium as a Top Five Team

The last time Michigan was in Iowa City, it suffered a crippling first loss of the season as the number two team in the country. It was Harbaugh’s first return to the stadium since he was the Michigan quarterback in 1985. That season, his team also lost on a last-second field goal as the number two team in the country. The Wolverines have not won in Iowa City since the 2005 season, and they are 0-4 since. However, Iowa lost the last two matchups against Michigan by a combined score of 52-6.  There’s a bad taste in the mouths of these Hawkeyes, and they have been reliving the results of last year’s Big Ten Championship game all week inside the facilities. 

This week, the point spread model makes Iowa a six-point home underdog. The points total is estimated at 44.8. If Iowa can take this game into the fourth quarter, there is always a chance for things to fall their way. Especially when the opposition has a single-digit number next to their name in the rankings.