IOWA CITY, Iowa — Entering the Big Ten’s “All Valley Tournament,” Iowa’s Karate Kid has a heck of a task going up against Michigan’s Cobra Kai.
The No. 3 Wolverines (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten) have clubbed every opponent but two by at least 17 points. Only one team — No. 7 Wisconsin — played Michigan within a touchdown. The margin of victory for Jim Harbaugh’s squad is a national-best 37.3 points per game. Iowa (5-4, 3-3) averages 26.6 points a game. If any statistic says Iowa should be ready for a bodybag, it’s that one.
However, football games are competitions filled with unpredictable variables. How will Iowa respond to a humiliating performance at Penn State? How much focus will Michigan have after stomping Maryland 59-3 and watching Iowa’s video lowlights? Will a night game at Kinnick Stadium help bridge the gap between the programs?
Like in the 1984 blockbuster, if Iowa wants to even compete in this game (8 p.m. ET, ABC), it needs to channel its inner Daniel LaRusso. Here are five key ways it can:
1. Fear does not exist in this dojo
Home-field advantage has not helped Iowa, which has lost three consecutive games at Kinnick Stadium. But Saturday’s atmosphere will be different from the others. This is a game under the lights with a raucous crowd that wants to get riled up in the worst way. Shoot, most of the fans will be ready to lay into the Wolverines by 4 p.m.
Iowa has beaten Michigan three straight times at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes have beaten the Wolverines in four of their last five meetings. While none of those Michigan squads approached the talent, prowess and coaching of the Wolverines’ current batch, it’s not an impossible task. Plus, with this game aired on ABC to a national audience, this provides a showcase to Iowa City and the football program. If Iowa can stay in this game, it quickly will become the second-favorite team for almost every fan in America — at least it will on Saturday night.
2. Strike first, strike hard, no mercy
From what we’ve seen with Michigan, there’s no let-up whatsoever. Even when the Wolverines attempt to take the air of the ball, they’re still scoring points. That means if there’s an opportunity for a big play, take it. Give quarterback C.J. Beathard a deep option on every passing route. Let linebacker Josey Jewell freelance every couple of plays. Call a punt block. Set the tone and make Michigan react, not the other way around.
A couple of game-altering plays would turn a rowdy but skeptical crowd into a four-quarter house of horrors for Michigan. The Wolverines have left their home state just once, and that was at welcoming Rutgers. This will be a different experience, especially if Iowa gives its fans something to cheer about.
3. Wax on, wax off
Iowa’s defense must stay sound and rally to the football on every play. In their third-worst statistical effort by a run defense under Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes gave up 359 rushing yards to Penn State. That’s unacceptable. The Hawkeyes lost gap integrity, failed miserably when trying to set the edge and didn’t wrap up when they met the ball carrier.
As for this week, it doesn’t matter which Michigan running back is in there. The Wolverines lead the nation in rushing touchdowns with 36 and rank second in the Big Ten with 251.7 yards per game. Michigan doesn’t have a running back in the Big Ten’s top 10, but three different runners have scored at least six touchdowns.
4. Sweep the leg
Iowa has one of the Big Ten’s most dynamic offensive players in running back Akrum Wadley. Wadley’s production parallels Iowa’s offense right now in boom-or-bust fashion. Against Penn State, Iowa shifted Wadley to the slot and twice ran jet sweeps for virtually nothing. That seemed like a desperate move, and Penn State snuffed it out pretty quickly. Michigan would do the same.
The best way to use Wadley’s speed on running plays is to call sweeps from the backfield and let him navigate the wide side of the field. Among Big Ten backs, there might not be a better running back in space than Wadley. Iowa won’t win this game in a phone booth; it doesn’t have the muscle up front. But it might gain traction in tight spaces if Wadley can go wide several times.
5. Finish him
Iowa needs to sustain drives, pure and simple. That’s one of the Hawkeyes’ most difficult tasks in warm-ups right now, let alone while facing the nation’s top third-down defense. Michigan’s opponents convert third downs at a shockingly low rate of 19 percent. Iowa’s offense ranks 102nd nationally by converting on only 35.9 percent of its third-down opportunities.
For the Hawkeyes to have any chance, they must keep drives alive. Maybe that means inserting a buzzer into the offensive booth that emits an electric shock when a second tight end and fullback are inserted on third-and-short. Just wondering out loud on that one.