Once again, Iowa meets up with a Greg Mattison defense. The first time was in the 2006 Outback Bowl, the one Iowa lost and you all hated because of low-grade officiating. When Brady Hoke was hired at Michigan in 2011, one of his first moves was hiring Mattison. The Wolverines immediately got better on defense. UM isn't where it wants to be with seven victories, but this is an Indianapolis-caliber defense.
Mattison's defenses are a lot like what Iowa has run during the Kirk Ferentz years. Michigan bases from a 4-3 under defense with its front wired to the wide side of the field. The outside linebacker often is asked to cover a slot receiver. Michigan's secondary is aggressive in run support. The goal is third-and-long situations for the offense, so he can thread a blitz within zone coverages.
Michigan's defense seems to have gotten a boost out of Jake Ryan's return. The 240-pound strongside linebacker made his season debut five games ago after coming back from a torn ACL suffered in spring practice. The Wolverines are ranked 13th in the nation in rush defense, allowing 111.2 yards a game. They've allowed just two 100-yard rushers this season (Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah).
Iowa has a batting order at running back and it's anyone's guess how that will breakdown. Ferentz said this week junior Mark Weisman could be the healthiest he's been since early October. Sophomore Jordan Canzeri grabbed the keys against Purdue and had a career day (165 yards, TD) and junior Damon Bullock has remained steady in his production.
Iowa put out its postseason honors packet this week. It's that time of year and every school in the country does it. Four offensive linemen -- center Austin Blythe, guard Conor Boffeli and tackles Brett Van Sloten and Brandon Scherff -- were on the list. They have two games to move from the list to all-conference votes.
Michigan defensive end Frank Clark (6-2, 273) is a hot player. His 4.5 sacks, not to mention seven of his team-high 9.5 tackles for loss, have come in the Wolverines' last six games. The rest of the D-line has 5.5 sacks giving UM's front four 10.5 of its 20 sacks this season.
Michigan will mix zone coverages, cover-2 or cover-3, with different blitz packages, including "psycho" fronts, a move that Iowa has made this year with the stand-up rushers along the line of scrimmage. The goal here is to create confusion. Iowa QB Jake Rudock jumped in as a first-year starter and has done an outstanding job of reading most everything defenses have thrown at him. That will be tested today. The Wolverines will want to get hits on Rudock, who wore a large brace on his left knee two weeks ago at Purdue to boost a sprained knee. Rudock also has shown he'll hang in there (see the Northwestern OT winner) against unblocked defenders.
Sophomore cornerback Blake Countess is tied for the Big Ten lead with four interceptions, including one he returned for a 72-yard TD against Minnesota. Corner Raymon Taylor and strong safety Thomas Gordon each have three picks. The Wolverines' 13 interceptions are tied for No. 2 in the conference and 20th nationally.
In Iowa's last five games, it's had five different receivers lead it in receptions (in chronological order, Tevaun Smith, Jake Duzey, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Damond Powell and George Kittle). Martin-Manley leads Iowa with 35 receptions for 301 yards. It might be healthy that Rudock can count on just about anyone to come through. Martin-Manley is as close as Rudock has to a go-to, leading Iowa in receptions in four games.
Still, the fact remains that Iowa's passing game isn't explosive. Iowa is No. 101 in the country with 70 passes of 10-plus yards. You can't count on a lot of perfect 12-play, 80-yard drives. A step here for the Iowa offense would be huge for the final two games and beyond.
Freshman running back Derrick Green gave life to Michigan's running game last week. He carried 19 times for 79 yards, both career-highs, in UM's three-OT victory over Northwestern. The Wolverines finished with 139 yards after consecutive weeks of negative rushing yards (minus-48 vs. Michigan State; minus-21 vs. Nebraska). Green arrived at Michigan in August ranked as the No. 1 RB recruit in the nation by Rivals. (He reportedly told reporters after his commitment that Hoke cried when he told him he picked Michigan.) Green also was 240 pounds and suffered an ankle injury early in camp. He's down to 230 and appears ready to make a difference for a running game that is ranked No. 96 in the nation (135.7 yards a game).
Freshman De'Veon Smith gained 41 yards against Northwestern. Senior Fitzgerald Toussaint sat out after a concussion forced him to miss practice. The Wolverines are in year 3 of Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges and they continue to struggle with the transition from the spread offense that Rich Rodriquez implemented with QB Denard Robinson to a power running game with west coast passing concepts. UM's interior line (two redshirt freshmen and a sophomore) got some praise for last week after taking a drubbing the previous two.
Ferentz was asked this week what has been Iowa's most improved unit after the 4-8 in '12. He quickly responded the D-line. He's exactly right. Junior Carl Davis (6-5, 315) has gone from shaky rotational guy to every-down tackle. Tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat has been a year better after learning the ropes as a sophomore last season.
The tackles have kept linebackers James Morris and Anthony Hitchens blocker-free and have given them the room to roam. Just how improved Iowa's defense is probably comes out today. Last season in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines open Iowa's D like a tuna can, scoring TDs on their first six drives and putting up 513 yards total offense, the most on Iowa since 2010. Let's see who's changed the most in a year.
Michigan's transition also shows up in the passing game, where it hasn't just been any one thing. QB Devin Gardner started UM's final five games last season, finishing with a 3-2 record and sterling numbers (9.7 yards a pass attempt, 161.66 pass efficiency and 11 TDs to five interceptions). He torched Iowa for 314 yards and three TDs. This season, the numbers are down across the board, from 15 TDs to 11 picks to a 144.5 pass efficiency to loads of frustration. (One factor that goes unnoticed is his 10 rushing TDs.)
Michigan has allowed 31 sacks. Gardner has fumbled nine times, losing four. He's taken a physical pounding, even calling a timeout at one point last week because he lost feeling in his left arm. Borges has flipped back and forth between spread and pro style and the offense has been lost in translation. UM has athletes, but aggressive defenses have beaten Michigan's tendencies (see Nebraska DE Randy Gregory saying in postgame that he knew what the Wolverines were going to do).
The Wolverines do have a 1,000-yard wide receiver in Jeremy Gallon, who's been consistently productive and even historic (14 receptions for 369 yards and two TDs against Indiana). Tight end Devin Funchess will be your first-team all-Big Ten pick with 42 catches for 684 yards and five TDs.
Iowa gave up several long TD passes early in the season. The Hawkeyes are 6-4 and by no means are perfect, but credit where credit is due here. Iowa goes into week 11 ranked seventh in the nation with just 68 passes of 10-plus yards. You've read that Michigan has allowed 31 sacks. Iowa needs to pressure Gardner while keeping him contained. Ferentz acknowledged this week Iowa has blitzed more this season, but its blitz percentage remains lower than average teams. Pass protection has been a problem for UM, but will Iowa attack?
Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons is fresh off a Big Ten special teams player of the week award. He nailed a 44-yarder as time expired and hit three other field goals in the Wolverines 27-19 triple-OT victory over Northwestern. He made two FGs in the fourth quarter and one in OT. Gibbons leads the Big Ten with 8.6 points a game. Punter Matt Wile averages 41.5 yards a kick (sixth in the Big Ten). Drew Dileo (7.3 yards) and Dennis Norfleet (24.4 yards) are solid in punt and kick return, respectively.
Iowa has toyed with RB Jordan Canzeri on kick return. He has been the last upback before Jordan Cotton, who remains Iowa's primary kick returner. With Canzeri's elevated role at RB, maybe that ends this week. Iowa hasn't averaged more than 20 yards a kick return in a game since 20.0 against Minnesota on Sept. 28. Martin-Manley continues to lead the Big Ten in punt return yards with 18.7 yards on 14 returns.
1) Talk about the weather — When Iowa opened the season Aug. 31 against Northern Illinois, the temperature on the Kinnick Stadium FieldTurf was 163 degrees. The official air temperature at kickoff was listed at 85, but Iowa had a stadium emergency plan in place because of the heat leading up to the game, which was around triple digits. Today, it's going to be a different story. You're looking at 25 degrees with gusty winds. Sure, the weather favors Iowa. Or no, Michigan is located farther north. So, let's go push.
2) Focused, angry or no comment — For whatever reason, just a handful of Iowa players were available for interviews this week. It's game 11 and it's been a year where Iowa has straddled the line of good and bad. Coverage has reflected that and maybe players are tired of hearing the same stuff. Or maybe they wanted to put all their time into preparation for today. At 6-4, Iowa has two opportunities to stamp something very positive on this season. Either way, it's too bad. Iowa's fooball players are UI sports most visible ambassadors. In front of cameras, notebooks and microphones and whatever else is media, they generally are fantastic. But hey, you don't want to talk, you don't want to talk. Talk with the shoulder pads.
3) Disrespect — Michigan has seven wins and a nation wonders what in the world is going on. For the most part this year, the Wolverines have ended up on ESPN for all of the wrong reasons. There was a narrow escape against Akron in the Big House (28-24 won on a goal-line stand). That was followed by a narrow escape at UConn (24-21). A four-OT defeat at Penn State was a gut punch. The minus-48 yards rushing against rival Michigan State was a throat punch. The minus-21 rushing vs. Nebraska was a face punch. You have to figure the Wolverines are ready to rip someone's head off. If they're capable of that, of course.
It can limit Michigan's big plays and maybe squeeze one out. In last season's debacle at Ann Arbor, the Hawkeyes allowed Michigan seven plays of 20-plus yards. Iowa generated two. The "dynamite" factor is in Michigan's favor, but there's no Denard Robinson to make the offense look better than it might be.
It rushes for . . . maybe 150 yards? Will the weather allow for the run to set up the pass? Remains to be seen, but the healthier UM's running game is the better its chances of winning. The more effective Michigan runs, the more it will constrain Iowa's defense and allow Gardner a comfort level to find something in the passing game. Michigan has the better receiving weapons in this game.
PREDICTION: Iowa 19, Michigan 17