Michigan vs. Iowa in Big Ten title game: Wolverines, Hawkeyes more similar than you think
Free Press sports writer Michael Cohen looks ahead to Michigan football’s game against Iowa on Saturday:
Matchup: No. 12 Iowa (10-2) vs. No. 3 Michigan (11-1)
Kickoff: 8 p.m., Saturday, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis.
TV/radio: Fox; WWJ-AM (950), WTKA-AM (1050).
Line: Wolverines by 10½.
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Know the foe: Iowa
The Hawkeyes rose to as high as No. 2 in the nation after six straight wins to begin the season, including three victories over ranked opponents. The highlight of their first half was a win over then-No. 4 Penn State on Oct. 9 that pushed Iowa to 6-0 and a No. 2 national ranking. But the remainder of October was difficult for the Hawkeyes. They failed to translate the momentum from their victory over Penn State into a home tilt against Purdue the following week and lost by 17. Then they lost by 20 on the road at Wisconsin as a once-promising season showed signs of derailment.
But coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff deserve credit for finding a way to right the ship in November, and the Hawkeyes put together four consecutive wins over Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois and Nebraska by an average of 6.8 points per game. The Hawkeyes entered the regular season finale against the Cornhuskers needing some help to reach the Big Ten championship game. Iowa did its part by beating Nebraska on Friday but needed Minnesota, which had lost two of its last three, to beat the 14th-ranked Badgers at home the following day. The Gophers complied with a 23-13 win that sent Ferentz and Co. to Indianapolis for the second time in the last seven years.
“It’s been quite a journey here the last couple days,” Ferentz said in a video news conference Sunday afternoon. “I did watch the (Wisconsin) game obviously. We had family over, we celebrated Thanksgiving yesterday. So we had the game on, and I was trying not to get too sucked in emotionally to it. Pretty clear what outcome we were cheering for. But you just kind of let the game play out, and as the game went on it became apparent that maybe this would be a reality. When the final whistle went off, it was a really good feeling for us.”
Three things we learned
The offensive line is nasty: Earlier this fall, backup guard Chuck Filiaga said his goal coming into the season was to develop a mean streak he could channel during games to punish opponents in the trenches. The concept was repeated at times by Filiaga’s teammates and position coach, Sherrone Moore, who encouraged his players to carry themselves like dogs whenever they took the field. Never was that philosophy personified more than Saturday, when the Michigan offensive line humiliated Ohio State. Behind the stellar running of tailbacks Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum, the Wolverines averaged 7.2 yards per carry and racked up 297 rush yards as a team. Coach Jim Harbaugh called the performance dominant — a word that will sting the Buckeyes until the next iteration of this rivalry in 2022. When it mattered most, Moore’s guys came through.
“I think after what happened in the 2020 season we took it upon ourselves to kind of start identifying this offensive line and building an identity that we wanted to be,” right tackle Andrew Stueber said. “Started in the spring, started in training camp, just building that intensity, that ability to move people off the ball and that ability to kind of become nasty. So we’ve been building that all year.”
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Hutchinson is nearly impossible to block: As edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson spent the first 11 games of the season whipping through offensive tackle after offensive tackle, questions emerged about how he could manage against Ohio State and the highest-scoring offense in the country. It stood to reason that Hutchinson and fellow pass rusher David Ojabo needed to find ways to harass quarterback C.J. Stroud if the Wolverines had any chance of snapping their losing streak to the Buckeyes. Hutchinson solidified his status as arguably the best defensive player in the country by wrecking Ohio State’s offensive game plan almost singlehandedly. He notched three sacks to set a new school record with 13 in a single season and was credited for generating a QB pressure on better than 28% of his pass-rushing snaps. “I told you guys at the Big Ten media day that we were emphasizing this game more,” Hutchinson said after Saturday’s win. “Everyone seemed to have a lot of questions about that in terms of how we were doing it, and I told you to trust me, we were doing it. You go out there and you see how we played in that dominant fashion, there you go.”
Jim Harbaugh’s team is tough: Prior to this season, one of the disconnects between things Harbaugh espoused and the product his teams put on the field was a lack of physical and mental toughness. Harbaugh has always preached the importance of physicality, grit and grinding through the long hours needed to become a quality football team. But when his Michigan teams consistently fell short in big games and wilted against the best opponents, the rhetoric didn’t match reality. But the circuit was completed sometime between the end of last season and the beginning of this season, when a more rugged group of Wolverines stepped between the hashmarks each week. That much was clear Saturday at Michigan Stadium when Harbaugh’s group registered more sacks (4-0), quarterback hits (8-2) and tackles for loss (8-0) than the Buckeyes to own the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. “We were so dominant, I think,” Hutchinson said. “Offensively, defensively, I mean the way the offense was moving the ball, I don’t know how many yards they had but they were moving that thing up and down the field. Defensively, we let up a couple big plays, which we knew we were going to let up, but we got big in the red zone on some of those drives and I thought we really played good, complementary football.”
Three things to watch
Iowa battling illness: The Hawkeyes were shorthanded for Friday’s regular season finale against Nebraska after a flu bug ripped through the locker room last week. Ferentz said a significant portion of the locker room was affected by the illness, including several players who suited up Friday. This forced Iowa to make several late-game substitutions when some of the players who were ill simply ran out of energy in the third and fourth quarters. Players were trickling into the facility Sunday afternoon while Ferentz spoke to the media via Zoom, and he expected to have a better idea of who was healthy and who still needed time to recover by the end of the day.
“Preliminary reports are really good,” Ferentz said. “Hopefully it’s run its course or at least we’re on the tail end of it. Made for an interesting week to say the least, but hopefully we’re coming out of it.”
Uncertainty at quarterback: Much like Michigan has supplemented the playing time of quarterback Cade McNamara with freshman J.J. McCarthy, the Hawkeyes have utilized multiple players at the same position. Sophomore Alex Padilla played the first half of Iowa’s win over Nebraska and completed six of 14 passes for 76 yards. The second half belonged to junior Spencer Petras, who went 7 of 13 for 102 yards. Neither player threw an interception. Over the course of the season, Petras has logged approximately twice as many snaps as Padilla and holds advantages in most statistical categories. Petras has a better passer rating (79.5 to 68.3), better completion percentage (57.7 to 45.9) and more yards per attempt (6.5 to 6.1) than Padilla. But Petras also has five more interceptions. Ferentz did not declare a starter when asked during the Sunday news conference.
“We’ll probably announce that on Tuesday,” Ferentz said. “Really overall been pleased with both guys. I think both of them have really performed well during the course of the year. Seen improvement with both guys, and we go into this week feeling good about our situation there.”
Hawkeyes have studied the Wolverines: Even though Iowa and Michigan did not meet this season, Ferentz and his staff dedicated a decent amount of time to familiarizing themselves with the Wolverines throughout the year. Most of their exposure to U-M came while watching tape of common opponents as the Hawkeyes developed game plans for teams U-M had already faced. It was during these moments, Ferentz said, that Iowa took a hard look at Michigan’s running game as designed by offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. The Hawkeyes knew U-M would run the ball week in and week out with Haskins and Corum, which meant they could use the Michigan tape to study how opposing defenses attempted to stop the run. In other words, the consistency of Gattis’ game plans from week to week became beneficial for the Iowa coaches to learn about other teams in the Big Ten.
“When Michigan is one of the opponents, the common opponents, they’re typically a team we watch because they do run the ball a little bit and they give us an idea, maybe, of what the opponent defense might look like,” Ferentz said. “Both their backs have been stellar. Really had great seasons and they both present different challenges. And they’re not the only two guys. There’s other guys involved obviously. But they’re getting good play, certainly from the running backs and other guys as I mentioned up front. They’re really doing a nice job, all five guys coordinated together (on the offensive line). Good tight ends. Quarterback is playing well, and they’ve got good skill guys outside. I know they’ve run the ball effectively, but they’re not a one-dimensional football team.”