Iowa and Michigan will meet for the second time in three seasons for the Big Ten Title inside Lucas Oil Stadium. The Wolverines enter the game with 12 regular season wins for the second time in as many years, and it might be the best Wolverine team of that stretch. Michigan has dominated much of its competition this year, and it won two of its final three games without its head coach on the sidelines. Iowa is 10-2 for the second time in three years. It’s a team that’s faced tremendous adversity with four critical, season-ending injuries, a suspended player, and an offensive coordinator set to be fired at season’s end. Two different paths, one common goal – to win a conference title.
Michigan’s Point of Attack
When you talk about Michigan, you have to start with the way it controls games. It starts at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football. Michigan’s offensive line won back-to-back Joe Moore Awards in the last two seasons. It’s the trophy awarded annually to the top offensive line in the nation. The group is rated fifth nationally in run blocking according to Pro Football Focus. In its two biggest games against Penn State and Ohio State, it ran the football extremely well. In Happy Valley, the Wolverines ran the ball on 32 consecutive plays to finish the game. Two weeks later against Ohio State, Michigan rushed on 39 of its 60 total plays. It won both games with a combined rushing performance of 383 yards on 85 carries for a four-and-a-half-yard average. Michigan ran 129 total plays in those games, 66% of them were runs.
On the other side of the ball, the Wolverines have been just as elite. The Michigan defense did not face a “goal-to-go” situation until its tenth game of the season. Penn State was the first opponent to take the ball inside the Michigan ten-yard line. The group has a top-six run defense and pass rush according to Pro Football Focus, with a grade above 90 in both. Michigan also has 68 tackles for loss on the year and 29 sacks.
The injury bug has found its way to Ann Arbor, however. Michigan will be without one of its best offensive linemen in Zak Zinter. He went down last week against Ohio State with a season-ending leg injury. The right guard was one of the veterans of the group, having played over 2,500 snaps in his career. The right side of Michigan’s line of scrimmage is going to be one of its concerns heading into Championship Saturday. Karsen Barnhart slid inside to the guard spot from his typical right tackle position. Barnhart’s pass protection had been below average in the last four games, allowing 11 pressures. Now, as he replaces Zinter at guard, veteran Trente Jones will fill the right tackle spot. He has just two starts on the year.
Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards have carried the ball at least 32 total times in each of Michigan’s last three games. The duo at running back has been the offense’s biggest weapon this season and they have scored 25 touchdowns on the ground. Corum has 22 of them. Iowa’s defense has allowed just two rushing touchdowns on the year. Michigan will work him the ball at least 25 times on Saturday against Iowa, as they like to do. Corum is averaging just shy of five yards per carry, with 202 attempts on the season.
When the run game is working, Michigan sticks to it. Against Penn State, the Wolverines did not pass the football for the final 36:14 of game time. JJ McCarthy’s last pass attempt in that game was at the 6:14 mark of the second quarter. It controlled the remaining two and a half quarters of football against a top-10 Penn State team by sticking to the ground.
The Wolverine secondary is among the best in the nation as well. Its coverage defense is ranked fourth in the nation, just one spot behind Iowa’s, according to Pro Football Focus. Mike Sainristil leads the team with five interceptions and five pass breakups. He is the most-targeted cornerback of the group with 38 targets this season. Sainristil has given up three touchdowns this year, but none in the past three weeks. He’s playing his best football right now, having allowed just 29 total yards against Penn State and Ohio State combined.
Michigan’s Josh Wallace was a target of Iowa’s this offseason as a transfer cornerback from Massachusetts. Michigan landed him, and he’s been arguably the team’s best cornerback. With an 80.5 PFF grade, he’s allowed just 138 yards on 29 targets, three pass breakups, and zero touchdowns.
Iowa Michigan Round Two
Jim Harbaugh will return to the Wolverine sideline in the team’s third-straight championship game appearance. He served a three-game suspension to finish out this season resulting from the team’s sign-stealing scandal. The suspension did not prove to be a speed bump for the Wolverines, as the team beat its toughest two opponents in the final three weeks of the season. At 12-0, Michigan is one win away from a third-straight College Football Playoff appearance. However, it will have to get through another one of the best statistical defenses in the nation.