Tough to win, but great to play – Michigan's 37-8-4 series edge over Iowa is tough for any competitive Iowan to swallow, but unlike many other one-sided rivalries (like Oklahoma vs. Iowa State and the routine OU blowouts that go with the 63-5 all-time Sooner advantage), this is usually a very good game no matter what kind of season the Hawks are having. Iowa has lost seven games in a row to Michigan, but the last three losses have been by a combined thirteen points. The last one-sided game was the 24-7 Wolverine win in 1993. Unfortunately, the last Iowa win in the series was the memorable 24-23 win in Ann Arbor in 1990 that propelled Hayden Fry's Hawks to the Big Ten Co-Championship and a Rose Bowl birth.
No Big Ten team has faired well against Michigan in recent years, and that is not a new trend. The Wolverines lead NCAA Division I in all-time wins with 819, and have not had a losing season since 1967. They have won the most Big Ten titles (40) of any league member, and were the last Big Ten football team to win a national title (1997). According to experts like ESPN's Beano Cook, Penn State was supposed to dominate the Big Ten when they joined the league in 1993, but the Nittany Lions have only won the league once and have lost six games in a row to Michigan.
Hayden Fry had as much success against the Wolverines as any Iowa coach, and ex-Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler hated to play Iowa during the 1980s. Bo used to get all worked up about the pink locker room in Kinnick Stadium, but Hayden beat Bo as much at Kinnick as he did in the "Big House" in Ann Arbor. Everyone remembers the 1985 classic when No. 1 Iowa defeated No. 2 Michigan, 12-10 at Kinnick, but Iowa's 9-7 upset over Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1981 was, perhaps, a bigger win for the program since it propelled Iowa to its first Rose Bowl birth in over twenty years. In all, three of Iowa's four wins over Michigan under Fry were in seasons that Iowa went to the Rose Bowl. The other win in 1984 was the worst loss in Bo Schembechler's career (26-0).
The Michigan game has been a good game for general football fans over the last 20 years since both teams play physical and believe in running the ball and stopping the run. Both teams also seem to match up well as many games have been decided by the kicking game. Tom Nichol booted three field goals in the 1981 Iowa win, while Rob Houghtlin booted the game winner at the buzzer in 1985. Michigan enacted revenge as they won both the 1987 and 1998 games with field goals.
Wins over Michigan have propelled Iowa to the Rose Bowl, but losses have taken their toll some years. The 1998 Iowa team was not a good team, but the 12-9 loss to the Wolverines in a game that Iowa had led throughout was hard to take. The Hawks beat Northwestern the next week to even their record at 3-3, but lost the last five games of the season. Coach Fry retired after the last game.
The Iowa program fell apart after the Michigan game in 1998, but the loss that marked the turn in the Iowa program happened in 1997. Tim Dwight, Tavian Banks, Jared DeVries, and many other veterans made up a 4-1 rated team that had high expectations for the season after posting 8-4 and 9-3 records in 1995 and 1996. The 1997 seniors talked all season about going to the Rose Bowl and accomplishing big things and acting like the 1995 and 1996 seasons were just mediocre. After a loss to Ohio State in the previous game, the Michigan game was seen as a must win by many players if they wanted to go to Pasadena. They had all the momentum in the world at the end of the first half as Dwight ran a punt back for a TD and Iowa converted the two-point conversion to make it 21-7 at the break. Unfortunately, the Iowa Offense did nothing in the second half and forced the Iowa Defense to stay on the field practically the entire half. Iowa lost 28-24, and the Iowa Offense never recovered. Instead of winning ten or more games, the 1997 Hawks finished 7-5 after a bad Sun Bowl loss in El Paso. That was the last time Iowa has played in Ann Arbor.
Still, despite the good and bad moments, the series has been one in which both teams have played hard and usually played well. When the Hawks have lost, it has usually been after they fired every bullet possible. Who can forget TE Scott Slutzker pumping up his teammates while he was being carted off the field after a great performance in a 29-14 loss in 1994? Few teams win in Ann Arbor and the Michigan helmet seems to be worth ten points every time the Wolverines take the field, but if this year's game plays true to form, it should be competitive on the scoreboard and physical down on the field.
Win the game in the trenches – Senior QB Brad Banks needs to make plays to extend drives, but whichever teams controls the line of scrimmage should win in this contest. Controlling the line of scrimmage and winning the turnover battle are the two time-honored keys to winning a football game, but controlling the line of scrimmage is not always as paramount to winning in this age of college football when many teams spread the field and throw everywhere. Saturday's match up will be more like games from a decade ago, as both teams like to run the ball to set up the passing game. Neither team wants to spread the field if it doesn't have to, and both teams would love to win the game by being more physical than its opponent and running well.
Iowa is first in the Big Ten in rushing defense, giving up an average a mere 67.4 yards per game. Last week was the first game that they tackled poorly and let an opposing ball carrier run for over 100 yards, but overall they have been great against the run. Michigan has also been very good against the run, as they are third in the league in this category. They have given up 102.9 yards per game and opponents have rushed for only 3.1 yards per carry. Iowa's opponents have rushed for only 2.2 yards per carry.
It would seem that the Michigan Defense is in for a big test with Iowa, but the Hawkeye Offense has not produced yards and points on a consistent basis the last few games. Iowa is still averaging 218.5 rush yards per game, but has not broken 200 in a game since playing Penn State. Michigan is averaging 146.4 yards per game, which ranks only ninth in the league. If last year's game was any sign, both teams may struggle running the ball. Iowa ran 34 times for 65 yards in that game, while Michigan ran 36 times for 63 yards. Iowa has several good offensive linemen, but will that be enough to open up the ground game? Last week they controlled the game at times against Indiana, but key penalties and fumbles killed drives. Saturday must be a cleaner game if the Hawks are going to win in Ann Arbor.
It is about styles sometimes – There are some opponents that Iowa can come out and hammer up front with any scheme, but the zone blocking concepts that Iowa employs should help on Saturday. Michigan is athletic on defense and likes to zone dog and zone blitz, so the zone blocking schemes should pay off more than they would against the 2001 Iowa Defense. The Iowa OL is as athletic and experienced as any group in the league, so they have the best chance of any Big Ten team of lining up and playing well against the Wolverine front seven. Michigan is leading the league in sacks, but Iowa is leading the league in protecting the QB. Iowa should be able to protect Banks again this week as long as they can find offensive success both in the air and on the ground.
Big play opportunities will be there - Michigan is going to have to bring additional rushers this week if they want to apply the same pressure on Iowa that they do on most foes. They may do a lot of zone blitzing in running situations to stop RB Fred Russell, but that means Russell might break one if Michigan blitzes the wrong gap. As another option, they may play action and find TE Dallas Clark sitting in the gaps of the zone. Opposing teams have been blitzing on running plays and bringing the safety near the line of scrimmage in running situations most of the year, and Russell has been one broken tackle away from popping runs for huge gains. Coach Ferentz said this week that Fred's shoulder is getting better, and since this is a big homecoming game for the Michigan native, look for some of Fred's most physical running in weeks. The only real concern with Fred this week will be whether he stays within himself and does not leave his blockers continually looking for the homerun carry.
If they can get the running game going, the bootleg stuff should all work well. The Penn State game was an offensive clinic because the running game opened up the bootlegs and bootleg passes against single coverage with little safety help.
Play smart – Iowa seems to have the advantage up front on both sides of the ball. They also have one of the best kickers in the country to go with great kick and punt coverage units. Added all together, Iowa should win the field position battles and the game if the backfields on both sides of the ball do their job. Brad Banks has a tough job in making plays and extending drives, but the other backfield players only need to perform adequately. Receivers need to catch the ball and make the average plays, while Fred Russell and the other Iowa running backs need to hit the hole, follow blocks, and hang onto the ball. Most players will view this contest as the biggest game of their football careers, which is all right as long as they control their emotions and use the extra adrenaline in a positive way. These players have already played in high energy contests like the Penn State and Iowa State games this year, so it should not be anything new that they can not handle.
On the defensive side, Michigan is going to be able to pass the ball on Iowa. That is all right as long as Iowa doesn't give up big plays, stops Michigan on third-and-long situations, controls the Wolverine run game, and forces a key turnover or two. The big thing that Iowa showed in the Michigan State game was a willingness and ability to hit everyone that wore an opposing jersey. As long as players are not making mistakes, but are still going around trying to tackle like SS Bob Sanders and DE Matt Roth, it should be a good day.