By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa football team, despite being ranked last in the Big Ten in total offense, and near the bottom in rushing offense and pass efficiency, is your Big Ten West Division champion.
And Iowa has Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck to thank of all people, and his players, of course, for defeating Wisconsin 23-13 on Saturday in Minneapolis.
Iowa and Wisconsin were both tied at 6-2 in the Big Ten heading into this weekend’s games, but Wisconsin had the tiebreaker over Iowa based on having defeated the Hawkeyes 27-7 in October.
Iowa took care of its business on Friday by scoring 22 consecutive points to defeat Nebraska 28-21 in Lincoln, Nebraska.
And then Iowa’s only hope was for Minnesota to hand Wisconsin a third conference loss, and that’s what happened on Saturday.
Iowa (10-2) will now face 11-1 Michigan in the Big Ten championship game this coming Saturday in Indianapolis, and six years after Iowa made its only appearance in the conference title game where it lost to Michigan State 16-13 in 2015.
Michigan earned a spot in the championship game by defeating Ohio State for the first time under Jim Harbaugh, and for just the second time in nine years.
The Wolverines, behind a potent ground attack, and an aggressive defense, defeated the Buckeyes 42-27, handing Ohio State head coach Ryan Day his first conference loss.
Iowa’s rush defense against Michigan’s rush offense is a matchup that could go a long way in determining a winner.
Iowa has won 10 games in a regular season for just the fourth time in 23 seasons under Kirk Ferentz, but it hasn’t been easy, and has been frustrating at times for fans, due mostly to an offense that has sputtered for much of the season.
Iowa’s two losses came in back-to-back games against Purdue and Wisconsin in October by scores of 24-7 and 27-7, respectively.
In both games, the offense performed woefully.
The defense also struggled against Purdue, one of the few times it has performed poorly this season.
And then against Wisconsin, the defense eventually wore down after having been put in so many tough situations from a field position standpoint.
Iowa leaves much to be desired on offense, a work in progress, a slow work in progress in some respects.
But Iowa is also the Big Ten West Division champion and couldn’t have achieved that goal without the offense contributing.
The surge from the offensive line, and the running lanes it produced for Tyler Goodson to rush for over 100 yards was key to Iowa’s victory over Nebraska on Friday.
Iowa seems better equipped to play Michigan and its power game rather than Ohio State’s spread attack.
But the Wolverines also rushed for nearly 300 yards in Saturday’s victory over Ohio State, so be careful what you wish for could be appropriate in this case, too.
Jim Harbaugh has a veteran squad that was determined to get over the hump against Ohio State, and finally did in a fashion similar to how Michigan played under the legendary coach Bo Schembechler; power football mixed in with talent at the skill positions and solid execution.
Iowa plays with a similar style under Kirk Ferentz, but from an offensive productivity standpoint, there is no comparison.
Michigan averages nearly 450 yards per game, and only averages about 70 fewer rushing yards per game than Iowa averages in total yards.
Michigan entered this week averaging 218.36 rushing yards per game, while Iowa began the week averaging 293.18 in total yards.
If Iowa can at least contain the Michigan running game, and not allow the Wolverines to stay ahead of the chains, then Iowa should have a chance, assuming special teams makes its usual contribution in kicking, punting and returns.
Special teams have been a driving force for Iowa this season, but Michigan also excels on special teams.
Both teams have two quarterbacks with experience, although, under different circumstances.
Michigan has relied mostly on junior Cade McNamara to lead the offense, but heralded freshman J.J. McCarthy has provided a spark off the bench, especially as a runner.
Alex Padilla started the last two games for Iowa after having replaced Spencer Petras in the first quarter against Northwestern on Nov. 6 due to an injury to Petras, and Iowa won all three games.
Padilla struggled in the first half against Nebraska, however, and Kirk Ferentz switched back to a now healthy Petras, who then would go on to play well enough for Iowa to win.
Kirk Ferentz says he now has two quarterbacks that he trusts, and feels comfortable with both behind center.
But the fact that Ferentz made the switch back to Petras at halftime, and that Iowa came back to win, makes it reasonable to think that Petras will start in the Big Ten championship game.
The only difference from before Petras was injured is that Kirk Ferentz has seen Padilla play winning football under pressure, so Kirk Ferentz might be more willing to switch back to Padilla should Petras struggle against Michigan’s ferocious pass rush that is led by defensive end Aiden Hutchinson and outside linebacker David Ojabo.
Michigan has a 42-15-4 advantage in the series with Iowa, but Iowa has won five of the last seven games against the Wolverines.
Jim Harbaugh, a former Michigan quarterback, was hired to lift his alma mater back to elite status, and a victory over Iowa on Saturday would be significant step because it would almost certainly put Michigan in the college playoff for the first time.
Kirk Ferentz, meanwhile, is trying to win his third Big Ten title, which would equal his predecessor and former boss, Hayden Fry.
Iowa also hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 2004, and that’s a long time for one head coach to go without winning one, so this is an opportunity that the 66-year old Ferentz might never experience again.
Kirk Ferentz’s team has serious issues on offense, and yet, it still won a division title, with help from P.J. Fleck and the Gophers.