The No. 2 Michigan Wolverines will continue their push toward a Big Ten Championship when they travel to face the Iowa Hawkeyes on Saturday.
Michigan (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten) can earn the program’s first 10-0 record since 2006. More importantly, though, the Wolverines would remain atop the East Division race heading into the final two weeks.
Entering the season, Iowa (5-4, 3-3) had championship aspirations. Although the campaign has not progressed as hoped, the Hawkeyes can still play spoiler at home.
ABC will broadcast the conference tilt, which is slated for an 8 p.m. ET kickoff. Michigan opened as an 18.5-point favorite, per Odds Shark.
Protect the Ball
Michigan’s offense keeps improving with Wilton Speight at the helm, and the sophomore has tossed only three interceptions this season. Plus, the team has lost just three fumbles.
As long as the Wolverines aren’t ceding possession in favorable territory, they’ll be difficult to beat because of the defense.
Iowa would need a borderline-heroic effort to knock off Michigan without forcing a few takeaways Saturday night.
If Bending, Don’t Break
The Hawkeyes may struggle offensively in general, but any time they successfully move the ball, Michigan must protect the end zone.
Entering the contest, Iowa boasts a 72.4 percent touchdown rate on drives that reach the 20-yard line. However, the Wolverines rank No. 1 nationally with the fewest red-zone possessions allowed (14) and lowest scoring percentage (57.1).
“We practice red-zone coverage every day in practice,” safety Delano Hill said after the Maryland game, per Matt Wenzel of MLive. “We take pride in it, so we take pride in people not scoring on us, they’ve got to settle with a field goal.”
Something has to give. And field goals won’t cut it for Iowa.
Hit the Outside
For Iowa, “creativity” and “offense” usually don’t appear in the same sentence unless it reads, “The Iowa offense lacks creativity.”
In order for the Hawkeyes to have a chance, they better be.
Michigan’s strength is stopping inside runs, on which the Hawkeyes rely. Unless Iowa manages to control the interior of the trenches, the coaches must be willing to attack the outside with screens and sweeps, among other play calls.
Get Off the Field
Few offenses are better at avoiding third downs than Michigan, and the Wolverines also sport the 14th-best conversion rate in the country.
That’s a dangerous combination for Iowa. Although the Hawkeyes have surrendered a respectable 35.9 percent overall, Wisconsin and Penn State moved the chains at a combined 48.4 percent clip.
On paper, Michigan has an enormous third-down edge. Iowa cannot afford to let that remain true between the white lines.
Jake Butt, Tight End
The program’s all-time leader for receiving yards by a tight end, Jake Butt is a reliable weapon for the Michigan offense.
After a relatively quiet stretch, he collected five passes for 76 yards during the dismantling of Maryland. The senior has 34 receptions, 421 yards and four touchdowns in 2016.
Iowa outside linebackers Ben Niemann and Bo Bower are no better than average in coverage, so Butt—a likely Day 2 pick in the 2017 NFL draft—could put together one of his best games this season.
Mike McCray, Outside Linebacker
Defenses have been successful attacking Mike McCray’s side of the field with outside runs. That trend hasn’t changed since Central Florida ripped off an 87-yard touchdown.
Now, the junior isn’t shying away from the responsibility. “Gotta be better,” McCray tweeted. “And I will. I promise that.”
But Michigan needs him to back up the talk, especially as a critical matchup with Ohio State approaches.
C.J. Beathard, Quarterback
Wisconsin shut down C.J. Beathard, limiting him to a season-low 4.6 yards per attempt. Michigan’s defense is even tougher.
That doesn’t automatically mean the senior will struggle, but there’s little evidence to the contrary. So, with that being said, could Beathard ask for a better opportunity to lessen the sting of a poor season?
Beathard’s best performance (235 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions) came against Iowa State. He’ll need a similar showing to help the Hawkeyes stun the Wolverines.
Greg Mabin, Cornerback
Most everyone knows about Desmond King, the reigning Thorpe Award winner and future top NFL draft pick. But he can’t cover Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh at the same time.
Greg Mabin needs to help. The senior has officially tallied three pass breakups, per cfbstats, though Mabin has defended several more.
But he can get caught being overaggressive, and Speight has consistently connected with downfield targets, particularly Darboh. Mabin must not be a weak link opposite King.
Though Speight entered the 2016 campaign with a game-winning pass, he’d otherwise only handled garbage-time reps. But the sophomore has developed into a terrific player even beyond what Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh expected.
“He’s superseded the hopes, he’s gone past what we were hoping he’d be—in a big way,” Harbaugh said, per Nick Baumgardner of MLive. “He’s been outstanding. Outstanding. I’d be lying if I said he hasn’t done more than what we hoped he’d be this season.”
Kirk Ferentz just received a monstrous contract extension, so he’s not going anywhere. However, according to Land of 10’s Scott Dochterman, Ferentz said while the focus is on Michigan, staff changes will at least be considered.
“I tell you one thing; we’ve got great people to work with, whether it’s our players or our coaches,” he said. “They’ve got a good attitude and a really good work ethic. You check those boxes off and you go from there. We have to look at everything, obviously.”
Unless Iowa manages to find some motivation by embracing the spoiler role, Michigan should win in a rout.
Beathard will probably be under duress throughout the game, and he’s not showed an ability to carry the Hawkeyes without a reliable rushing attack. And it would be unwise to expect a dramatic shift in play-calling. Iowa will continually and unsuccessfully run between the tackles.
Plus, the Hawkeyes are among the nation’s worst at forcing turnovers, while Speight is one of the best at avoiding them. A slow start would be problematic for the Wolverines, but after a rough first quarter at Michigan State, a repeat seems unlikely.
Michigan will move one step closer to taking an 11-0 record into the season-defining showdown against Ohio State.
Prediction: Michigan 34, Iowa 10
All recruiting information via Scout. Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.