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Getting You Set for the Big Ten Championship

The Big Ten Championship features the largest championship game spread of the weekend. Michigan has scored more points in the first half this year (244) than Iowa has scored all season (216). The Wolverines have put the ball in the end zone 59 times compared to Iowa’s 22 total. Michigan is undefeated, 12-0 on the season with a point differential of 248. Iowa is 10-2 despite a point differential of just 22. 

But none of this matters. Michigan and Iowa won the Big Ten East and the Big Ten West. The two programs are competing on Saturday, and each is one win away from a Big Ten Title. For Michigan, it would be its third in three seasons. For the Hawkeyes, it would be the first outright Big Ten Title in Kirk Ferentz’s 25 years in Iowa City. Iowa shared the conference title in 2002 and 2004. Saturday is the final game between the East and West divisions of the Big Ten in the tenth year of the two divisions. What better time could there be than this for the Big Ten West to earn its first Big Ten Championship?

Can Iowa Score?

If Iowa is going to score points to win this game, there are only a few ways it can happen. One of which is on Brian Ferentz’s script drives. In five of Iowa’s last six games, it put together drives of at least 10 plays on one of its first two possessions. However, three of them resulted in missed field goals, and just one resulted in points. Against Michigan in the 2021 Big Ten Championship Game, Iowa drove 10 plays for 59 yards on its opening drive before it missed a field goal.

Ferentz’s performance as an offensive coordinator has flaws, but his script plays have been very solid in his two years of calling plays. That’s especially been the case as Iowa has closed this regular season. The Hawkeyes are not built to come back by multiple scores, so capitalizing on one of its first two possessions will be crucial on Saturday in the Championship.

The other way Iowa can score is through its defense and special teams. The Hawkeye defense has three safeties this season and one interception return for a touchdown. It also has one punt return touchdown by the special teams. JJ McCarthy has thrown just four interceptions this season, and three came against Bowling Green in September. He doesn’t make mistakes through the air, but it’s partially due to Michigan not needing to throw the ball. 

Iowa also does something that tends to break through at least once during its games. It runs the ball consistently, and it runs it right at the defense. Iowa averages just over three yards per rush this year, 113th nationally. However, it has eight rushes of 30-plus yards this season, and three went for touchdowns. Its strategy is not fancy, but it continues to ground-and-pound until someone on the defense misses a run-fit, and Iowa capitalizes. Michigan is not going to miss assignments often, if at all, but if Iowa can string together a drive of ten-plus plays it has a chance to wear Michigan’s front out and maybe break off an explosive run to score or flip the field.

Can Iowa Stop the Scoring?

Michigan running back Blake Corum has punched it into the end zone 22 times this season. The rest of the offense has scored 11 rushing touchdowns, for 33 rushing scores on the year. Phil Parker’s defense has allowed just two rushing touchdowns on the season. The Hawkeyes are third nationally in red zone defense. The group has faced 24 opponent red zone attempts and has allowed just nine red zone touchdowns. Eight of those red zone stands resulted in field goals, and the remaining six yielded zero points. 

The Wolverines are 11th nationally in red zone appearances, with 55 trips inside the 20-yard line this year. Further, 40 of those trips have resulted in a touchdown. Michigan moves the ball tremendously well, and when it gets into the red area, it capitalizes. For the Hawkeyes to remain in this football game, the defense has to get a lot of stops. The Iowa offense is prone to three-and-outs and quick possessions. That translates to Michigan having several opportunities with the football. Parker’s defense will get stops early in the Big Ten Championship, but how well it can perform late in the game is crucial.

Early-Game Defense

When you look at how Iowa has performed against the nation’s top teams since 2021, its first-half defense has been very solid. In the 2021 Big Ten Title, it went into the half trailing just 14-3. The fourth quarter of that game was where Michigan piled on 21 points. A year later at Ohio State, Iowa’s defense scored and gave it an early lead in the game. It then held the Buckeyes to three straight red zone field goals. The Hawkeyes trailed just 19-10 nearing halftime before an Iowa pick-six gave Ohio State a 26-10 halftime lead. Against Michigan that same year, it was a 13-0 halftime deficit for the Hawkeyes. In 2023 at Penn State, Iowa trailed just 10-0 at the half. 

This defense has shown its ability to keep Iowa within striking distance in the early part of games. Against the Big Ten West, that has translated into Iowa having opportunities to win close football games. The trend against the big three of the Big Ten East has been similar. However, when the opportunities pile up for those teams in the second half, they tend to run away with it. On Saturday, Iowa has to give itself a chance to remain in these close games by moving the football on offense, and keeping its defense rested. 

Point of Attack

The Wolverines are dealing with a key injury for the Big Ten Championship at the line of scrimmage. Zak Zinter suffered a season-ending injury last week against Ohio State. This forced Michigan to shuffle the right side of its line of scrimmage around, moving Karsen Barnhart to guard and Trente Jones to tackle. Barnhart has allowed 22 quarterback pressures this season, the most on the team. If he’s at guard, and Jones, who has played just 62 pass snaps this season, is at tackle, Iowa has to press the right side of Michigan’s line. 

Joe Evans leads Iowa with 36 quarterback pressures this season. Deontae Craig and Logan Lee have 23 each. The Wolverine offensive line is one of the best in the nation, so it’s not like this is a glaring opportunity for Iowa. However, it’s a window that the Hawkeye front seven might be able to wear down.

When under pressure this season, McCarthy has thrown three interceptions and completed just 59% of his throws. He’s been under pressure 86 times and has a Pro Football Focus grade of just 69.7 on those throws. Seven of his nine turnover-worthy throws this season have resulted from defensive pressure. Michigan’s offense doesn’t rely on throwing the ball, but making McCarthy uncomfortable is a step toward slowing down the Wolverine offense.

Big Ten Championship, Prediction

The Hawkeyes have completed one of their most impressive seasons in the Ferentz tenure. They won 10 games despite averaging less than 250 yards of offense per game. Further, they fought through outside adversity, an NCAA suspension, and four injuries to the team’s most impactful players. Iowa now faces its toughest challenge of the season. Michigan is the second-ranked team in the nation and a national title contender, but one game stands in its way. It has to play Iowa. 

In 2016, the Wolverines were the number two team in the country and many viewed it as a national title contender. However, it went into Iowa City as a favorite of more than 20 points and lost. Michigan is favored by 20-plus points on Saturday where one game stands between it and a third-straight College Football Playoff appearance. “If we win, it might screw things up for the College Football Playoff,” Ferentz said at his game-week presser. “That might be kind of funny.”

Prediction

Michigan – 30

Iowa – 10

 

Photo courtesy: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

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