IOWA (4-6, 2-4) at MICHIGAN (7-3, 5-1)
IOWA RUSH OFFENSE VS. MICHIGAN RUSH DEFENSE
It might help, it might not, but RB Mark Weisman will play today. How much? Hard to tell, but we’ve covered it all week here and it stands: When Weisman and O-linemen Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal left the lineup, Iowa’s running game left with them. Even with just 14 carries in four weeks, Weisman is still Iowa’s leading rusher with 661 yards. After trying two players at left guard, it looks like junior Conor Boffeli grabbed it last week and will be there the rest of the season. Michigan’s rush defense is middle-of-the-road, allowing 153.7 yards a game (one yard less than Iowa). UM’s D-line has improved every week at gaining push and closing gaps. Northwestern shredded UM for 248 rush yards. Michigan has problems defending teams that can spread the field and run with the quarterback. Against traditional running games (Michigan State, Minnesota, Purdue), the Wolverines have been much better. The linebackers have played great in run support, led by Jake Ryan, who can play on the line or drop into coverage and is highly successful doing either. He’s second in the league in tackles for loss (12.0). Advantage: Michigan
IOWA PASS OFFENSE VS. MICHIGAN PASS DEFENSE
Only Southern Miss, New Mexico and Army have fewer TD passes this season than the Hawkeyes (5). The transition from Ken O’Keefe to Greg Davis has been difficult. Iowa filled its boat with recruits to run the KOK offense. That obviously hasn’t meshed with what Davis is trying to do. It’s posts and fades vs. outs and YAC. In ’11, Iowa’s top two receivers averaged 16.04 and 14.23 yards a catch. This year, those numbers are 12.17 and 11.60. These are smart coaches. They aren’t doing this blindly. They feel it best fits the available personnel. Obviously, we’ll never know if that’s true. Michigan leads the country in pass defense at 149.2 yards allowed per game, and actually has an impressive margin over No. 2 Nebraska (164.4). The strength is in safeties Jordan Kovacs and Thomas Gordon, a pair of returning starters who are terrific in preventing big plays. In fact, Michigan often seems more concerned with preventing big plays than allowing small chunks of yardage, confident that it eventually will get stops if it forces offenses to grind out long drives. Michigan did lose a starting corner in Blake Countess (ACL), but Raymon Taylor has been steady in his place. Advantage: Michigan
MICHIGAN RUSH OFFENSE VS. IOWA RUSH DEFENSE
Michigan is somewhat vulnerable here without record-setting rushing QB Denard Robinson, who’s been out of the lineup since Oct. 27 with an elbow injury. Robinson accounted for nearly 60 percent of Michigan’s rushing attack before he went down against Nebraska. UM’s tailbacks have struggled all year, starting with running back Fitz Toussaint. He’s a shell of the 1,000-yard rusher he was last season (ypc dropping from 5.57 to 3.80). With Michigan relying on the tailbacks without Robinson, it’s been hit or miss, and mostly miss, although Toussaint is coming off his best game of the year (92 yards last week against Northwestern). It’s kind of hard to know what to expect from Iowa linebacker this week. Late in the second half last week, junior James Morris was on the bench with what appeared to be a groin injury. Weakside linebacker Anthony Hitchens, the No. 4 tackler in the nation with 11.4 tackles per game, was benched and replace by Christian Kirksey, who moved over at redshirt freshman Travis Perry entered the game on the strongside. Iowa’s run D has been unplugged the four weeks, allowing more than 200 yards in three of the four. At 4.06 a carry, the Hawkeyes are in danger of allowing more than 4 yards an attempt for the first time since 2000 (4.42 yards). Advantage: Even
MICHIGAN PASS OFFENSE VS. IOWA PASS DEFENSE
When Robinson went out, the Wolverines dusted off Devin Gardner, who was perhaps UM’s best receiver before Russell Bellomy busted out replacing Robinson against Nebraska. Gardner took over and has sparkled the last three weeks. Michigan is passing more with Gardner, who in his two starts has posted two of the three best passing days by a Michigan quarterback this year. The receivers, in turn, are coming off their two best games of the year, even though they lost Gardner from their corps. Gardner credits his tour at receiver for improving his throwing. Simply, he’s making throws Robinson can’t, hitting receivers in stride with good zip and, somewhat remarkably considering he has two weeks of practice at the position, has shown judicious decision making. The Hawkeyes are 10th in the league in pass defense allowing 225.7 yards a game. This is in line with Iowa’s last two seasons (the low for the Ferentz era was 152.9 yards a game in ’09). Last week, Purdue QB Robert Marve had time to read the field and picked apart zone coverage (see the 20-yarder that set up the game-winning field goal). Iowa will need to generate some pass rush today. Advantage: Michigan
Kicker Brendan Gibbons, who just two years ago was 1-of-5 and benched, is 14-of-16 on the season and made his past 11 tries — a stretch that includes a 38-yard game winner against Michigan State, a career-long 52-yarder against Nebraska and a last-second 26-yarder against Northwestern that forced overtime. Punter Will Hagerup leads the Big Ten at 44.7 yards per attempt. Kick returner Dennis Norfleet is third at 23.7 yards a return. Special teams have been consistent and clutch, with the only weakness being kick coverage. It hasn’t been great all year, and Northwestern returned a kick for a touchdown that was called back. Iowa’s special teams have been quiet the last couple of weeks, which is good. The Hawkeyes could use a lightning play here today. A muffed punt recovery turned the 2002 game at Michigan Stadium toward Iowa. The Hawkeyes absolutely need that today. For the first time in four games, true freshman punter Connor Kornbrath eclipsed the 40-yard average with 40.67 on six punts. He matched his career best with a 52-yard punt in the third quarter against Purdue. He also had a 52-yarder two weeks ago at Indiana.. Advantage: Michigan
1) The Senior Day thing — It’s a thing. Whether Robinson plays or not, it’s a thing. Also a thing is the fact that Michigan’s seniors are 0-3 against the Hawkeyes. Now, that fact can’t block or tackle, but it might motivate. 2) Scoreboard watch — There is no “scoreboard watch” this week for the No. 23 Wolverines, who need Nebraska to lose if they want to win the Legends and advance to the Big Ten title game. The Huskers kick off at 2:30 against Minnesota. UM coach Brady Hoke doesn’t have to slap blinders on his team. UM can just play Iowa and then turn on the TV. 3) Ohio State creepin’ — Someday, maybe the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry will become a huge . . . OK, nevermind. That’s even too silly to joke around with. In some Michigan media this week, there was some mention of next week’s matchup in Columbus. It will be Michigan’s first crack at OSU coach Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes, who face a postseason ban, will make it their bowl game. First things first for UM and that’s the Hawkeyes. Advantage: Michigan
IOWA WILL WIN IF . . .
The Hawkeyes can find something that works and build something on it. That could be anything. It could be Weisman rushing for 100 yards, a string of defensive stops or a special teams lightning bolt. This is the time for lightning bolts.
MICHIGAN WILL WIN IF . . .
Gardner stays on his terrific run. There’s no reason to think he won’t. Yes, this is just his third start, but he pulled the Wolverines through last week in overtime against Northwestern, a superior team to Iowa this season.
PREDICTION: Michigan 28, Iowa 17