IOWA CITY, Iowa — Michigan and Iowa meet for the first time in three years, and in that time, the two programs have taken two very different paths.
Less than 11 months removed from playing in the Rose Bowl and going 12-0 in the regular season, Iowa is stumbling through 2016. The Hawkeyes (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten Conference) have lost their last two games and gave up 599 yards of offense in last week’s 41-14 loss at Penn State.
Michigan (9-0, 6-0) is No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings and continues to soar as the schedule gets shorter. Michigan boasts the nation’s top defense, one of the nation’s most dynamic players in linebacker Jabrill Peppers and a steady, productive quarterback in Wilton Speight.
Michigan leads the all-time series 41-14-4, and Iowa has won four of the last five games in the series.
Rachel Lenzi covers Michigan for Landof10.com, and Scott Dochterman covers Iowa for Landof10.com. They faced off to discuss Saturday’s 8 p.m. ET game between Michigan and Iowa.
DOCHTERMAN: Michigan has left the state just once for a game and that hardly amounted to a home-field disadvantage at Rutgers. While Iowa has struggled this year, Kinnick Stadium should boast a raucous crowd, and Michigan has lost its last three trips to Iowa City. Is this a concern for Michigan or just a warm-up for the reception it will receive in Columbus in two weeks?
LENZI: Many see this as the latter — simply a warmup for Ohio State, and many are also fast-forwarding ahead to that game, past Saturday’s game at Iowa and Michigan’s regular-season home finale Nov. 19 against Indiana, two games that could potentially be painted as “trap” games.
Michigan has struggled on the road in recent years. But this season’s sample size (78-0 win Oct. 8 at Rutgers, 32-23 win at Michigan State) still doesn’t tell us much about what it can do away from Michigan Stadium. One game reiterates how dominating Michigan is against one of the “have-nots” in this season’s Big Ten while the other score is a bit deceptive — Michigan trailed early against Michigan State and took advantage of a late-game fumble recovery to put away the win at Michigan State.
LENZI: Iowa gave up nearly 600 yards at Penn State and hasn’t won since Oct. 15. Is Iowa in a fragile state right now?
DOCHTERMAN: In a short word, yes. By the game’s end, Iowa’s defense seemed to lose the will to fight against Penn State. Fundamentals, which are the keys to everything Iowa does, lagged in the second half on both sides of the ball. The Hawkeyes had a bye before traveling to State College after losing to Wisconsin, so the calendar isn’t quite as dire as it seems. But Iowa players after the Penn State loss had a different look in postgame interviews, one of resignation rather than anger or even frustration. To me, it seems that they’ve accepted their position this season. Just one year after a Rose Bowl appearance, it’s quite a fall for the Hawkeyes.
DOCHTERMAN: Most people expected Michigan to have a stout defense, but few would have expected the offensive explosion. Michigan averages a Big Ten-high 47.8 points and has won every game but one by at least nine points. What’s the reason for the offensive success this year?
LENZI: Michigan has a steady, consistent quarterback in Wilton Speight, and his chemistry with his receivers and tight ends, as well as his vision and his ability to make quick decisions, has helped fuel Michigan’s passing game. Michigan also has committed itself to perfection. While it sounds cliche, they have this belief in following through on everything, whether it’s a third-down play or completing a block, and have taken on an attitude of “no shortcuts.”
Michigan’s offensive line also has necessary experience. Two years ago — even three years ago, when the Wolverines last faced Iowa — the offensive line could barely block, and creating any sort of ground offense was a struggle. That’s also helped the productivity of Speight.
DOCHTERMAN: Despite his status as Michigan’s quarterback, few people know much about Speight. What’s his background and in what ways has Jim Harbaugh put him in position to have success this season?
LENZI: Speight is a quarterback, but he’s also an avid golfer — and takes the golfer’s mindset into each game and each play. Bogey one hole? There’s the next one. Miss a receiver on one play? There’s always the next play. His coach at the Collegiate School in Richmond, Va., told me earlier this year that Speight always had a certain poise and a certain maturity, even when he was 14 or 15 years old and playing in his first varsity game.
He’s very level-headed, he’s a solid decision maker and he has size (6-foot-6), yet he is nimble and strong. Plus, with his coach, Harbaugh, being a former quarterback, as well as passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch — who has a knack for developing quality quarterbacks — there’s a certain relatability.
LENZI: Speaking of offense, C.J. Beathard’s numbers are down (his 204 yards at Penn State were only the third time he’s passed for more than 200 yards this season). But it can’t all be on Beathard. Where is Iowa’s passing game falling short?
DOCHTERMAN: This is on the younger wide receivers and tight ends failing to gain separation, and the coaching staff for both scheme and failing to land Big Ten-caliber receivers. With Matt VandeBerg out for the season with a broken foot and tight end George Kittle hampered with a foot injury the last three games, Beathard’s top six receiving threats from 2015 are non-factors right now. VandeBerg’s injury was critical. He and Beathard had great chemistry. VandeBerg caught 65 passes last year, 30 more than the No. 2 target. None of the other receivers have consistently beaten decent defenders and get open except for short routes, which is why Beathard has not been able to match last year’s success.
LENZI: After playing in the Rose Bowl and giving Kirk Ferentz a contract extension earlier this year, it’s been downhill for the Hawkeyes this season. What is the sentiment in Iowa City right now regarding Iowa football?
DOCHTERMAN: I would say most goodwill that was earned with last year’s performance has evaporated. The program stagnated in mediocrity from 2010-2014 with a 34-30 overall record (19-21 in Big Ten play). That led to a 17-percent drop in season ticket sales entering the 2015 season. After the first 12-win season in school history, Iowa athletics director Gary Barta rewarded Ferentz with a 10-year extension, which was panned by many fans who still recalled the previous lack of success. Iowa has lost three straight home games and many fans are calling for coaching changes. It’s quite a 180-degree turn from three months ago.
DOCHTERMAN: Through nine games, Michigan has allowed 12 touchdowns, a number almost unfathomable in today’s pass-happy version of football. The defense’s success seems predicated on line-of-scrimmage play. What makes Michigan so difficult to block up front?
LENZI: The defense does a great job of working in sync. That’s a direct result of the front seven halting or stunting in some way, shape or form. However, you saw a breakdown of this Saturday against Maryland. The Terrapins, despite getting shellacked on the scoreboard, threw for 289 yards against Michigan — the most yardage the pass defense has given up so far this season
That was a result of hesitation by the front seven, particularly by the linebacking corps, who may be fatigued, or who may be hurt. Linebacker Mike McCray was out of Saturday’s game for a few plays with a left knee issue. He returned but acknowledged afterward that he did not play his best. For everywhere that Maryland fell short, the Terrapins somehow succeeded in creating offense by exploiting that shortcoming of Michigan.
LENZI: Who is one Iowa player to watch on offense (besides Beathard) and on defense?
DOCHTERMAN: Akrum Wadley is one of the most athletic running backs Iowa has had in at least a decade. He has quick feet, is explosive and has great speed. He and the rest of Iowa’s running game were shut down by Penn State, but Wadley still has home-run speed and averages 6.7 yards per carry. Defensively, all eyes will be on Detroit native Desmond King. He won the Jim Thorpe Award last year as the nation’s top defensive back. King was beaten for his first touchdown last week against Penn State. But he’s still one of the nation’s best cornerbacks and no doubt will be excited to play his home-state team.
LENZI: Let me guess. You’re going to ask about Jabrill Peppers, right?
DOCHTERMAN: Actually, yes! Is there anything Peppers can’t do on a field? What makes him such a weapon in all facets of football?
LENZI: He can’t punt. No, we can’t go that far. Maybe he can punt. We haven’t see Peppers throw the ball, yet, and we have yet to see him play in Michigan’s offensive or defensive line (he just doesn’t have that kind of size). But Michigan’s staff probably has that trick up its sleeve, as well. Peppers loves football. He eat, sleeps and breathes football. His talent and athleticism allow him to play just about anywhere.
LENZI: Michigan is the second of a four-game stretch for Iowa that includes three games against the Big Ten’s upper-tier teams. What can Iowa take from the loss to Penn State and somehow apply to facing Michigan, a team with statistically gaudy numbers and some of the nation’s top players?
DOCHTERMAN: If anything, it gets back to playing as fundamentally sound as possible. Iowa’s defense was gouged with players out of position and without the athletes to match Penn State’s skill position players. Michigan’s offense can execute in the same manner, albeit in different ways, so good techniques are essential to competing on each down. Iowa has done it in the past, so it’s not impossible. Offensively, Iowa has to hope a few defensive backs slip on the Kinnick Stadium FieldTurf. Hope isn’t a strategy, but it might be the only option for Iowa’s passing game to gain traction against Michigan.