By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Perhaps the only thing more difficult than beating Michigan these days is finding anything that is close to being a weakness on the team.
You name it, and Michigan (12-0) does it at an extremely high level, from its rushing attack to its passing attack to its defense and special teams, Jim Harbaugh’s squad is loaded with firepower and experience.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz has been studying the Wolverines closely this week in preparation for Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, and to say that he is impressed would be an understatement.
“Looking at Michigan, no surprise they are very talented at every position,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Really well-coached and play extremely hard. It’s tough to find any kind of weakness or things that they don’t do well.
“It backs up the way they’ve played over the last three years. Now it’s been very, very impressive. A lot of good players. They do a good job defensively, offensively and special teams, an impressive group as well.
“Our players are excited about the opportunity to be in this game. I am proud of them for earning their way into it. It’s going to take our best football on Saturday to have a chance in this.”
Michigan has won 24 straight Big Ten games, which is a program record, and has won 28 of its last 29 conference games.
One of those wins was a 27-14 victory over Iowa last season at Kinnick Stadium.
Michigan led 20-0 before Iowa scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
The result for Iowa, though still a loss, was a big improvement from the previous meeting against Michigan when the Wolverines crushed Iowa 42-3 in the 2021 Big ten Championship game.
Cade McNamara was Michigan’s starting quarterback in the 2021 Big Ten Championship, while tight end Erick All was one of his favorite targets.
In fact, McNamara threw a five-yard touchdown pass to All in that game.
They both have since transferred to Iowa and were playing key roles this season until they both suffered season-ending knee injuries. McNamara was injured against Michigan State in the fifth game, while All was injured against Wisconsin in the seventh game.
The offense certainly had it issues even when McNamara and All were both healthy, but it’s been a major struggle without them, and without junior tight end Luke Lachey, who was injured in the third game of the season.
Michigan should also benefit from the return of Jim Harbaugh, who was suspended for the final three regular-season games after a Big Ten investigation into allegations of illegal in-person scouting. Harbaugh was also suspended for the first three games this season, and yet, the Wolverines were 6-0 without him on the sideline.
The oddsmakers seem to believe that Saturday’s rematch could be a repeat of the 2021 game as Michigan is favored by a whopping 23.5 points.
But it’s easy to see why, considering Iowa’s problems on offense, which led to offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz being fired effective at the end of the season, and its injury situation.
It becomes even more obvious when evaluating both teams from a position standpoint.
Here is a look at which team has the advantage at each position.
Quarterback: J.J. McCarthy’s rise to stardom as the Michigan quarterback is why Cade McNamara is now an Iowa quarterback.
McNamara lost the starting job to McCarthy early in the 2022 season and then would go on to transfer to Iowa shortly after the season. McCarthy has since continued to build on his legacy as one of Michigan’s top quarterbacks.
He enters Saturday’s game with 2,483 passing yards, 19 passing touchdowns and 181 rushing yards and three more scores on the ground.
He is also completing 74.3 percent of his passes and has thrown just four interceptions in 257 attempts.
Iowa quarterback Deacon Hill is 6-1 as a starter, but he is only completing 48.3 percent of his passes for 976 yards and five scores.
No disrespect to Hill because he was supposed to be McNamara’s backup this season, but this is no contest.
Running back: Michigan has one the top running backs in the country in senior Blake Corum. He has 976 rushing yards and 22 rushing touchdowns this season.
To put his touchdown total in perspective, Iowa has 11 rushing touchdowns as a team.
Michigan also has a talented backup in junior Donovan Edwards, who has 354 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns this season.
Edwards completed a 74-yard pass for a touchdown to receiver Roman Wilson in the first quarter of Michigan’s 42-3 victory over Iowa in the 2021 Big Ten Championship game.
Edwards is also a threat as receiver as he has 26 catches for 230 yards this season.
Junior Leshon Williams leads Iowa with 779 rushing yards, while sophomore Kaleb Johnson leads Iowa with three rushing touchdowns. Johnson has also rushed for 415 yards while appearing in eight games this season.
Williams had a 22-yard run that helped to set up Iowa’s game-winning field goal against Nebraska last Friday.
Redshirt freshman Jaziun Patterson gives Iowa a third option at running back. The Florida native has rushed 197 yards and has three catches for 21 yards while appearing in nine games this season.
Johnson and Patterson both missed three games earlier in the season due to injuries, but they’re now healthy and contributing.
Wide receiver: Roman Wilson leads Michigan with 648 receiving yards and with 11 receiving touchdowns. He is also averaging 16.2 yards per catch.
Cornelius Johnson gives Michigan another big-play threat at receiver as he has 33 catches for 503 yards and four touchdowns this season. He also averages 14.9 yards per catch.
Sixth-year senior Nico Ragaini leads Iowa with 26 catches and his 227 receiving yards is second on the team behind Erick All’s 299 receiving yards. However, All hasn’t played since suffering a season-ending knee against Wisconsin in the seventh game of the season.
Sophomore Kaleb Brown emerged late in the season for Iowa after having barely played in seven of the first eight games. He also missed the Purdue game for personal reasons.
Brown is now ranked second among the Iowa receivers with 14 catches, while his 142 receiving yards ranks third among the Iowa receivers.
Sophomore Seth Anderson has 11 catches for 150 yards and one touchdown, which came on Iowa’s opening drive of the season.
Tight end: This would have been a tough decision if Erick All and Luke Lachey were both healthy for Iowa.
But they’re not, so that makes this a no-brainer.
Michigan has an emerging star at tight end in sophomore Colston Loveland. His 37 receptions and 550 receiving yards both rank second on the team. He also has four touchdown catches.
Indiana transfer A.J. Barner gives Michigan another threat at tight end as he has 21 receptions for 236 yards and one touchdown.
Sophomore Addison Ostrenga leads the healthy Iowa tight ends with 22 catches, 128 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Offensive line: Even without the injured Zak Zinter, Michigan has one of the top offensive lines in college football.
The unit is ranked fourth nationally in fewest tackles for loss allowed (3.33) and 13th in sacks (1.17). Michigan has only allowed 14 sacks this season.
Michigan returned three of the five starters from last season’s offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award, which goes to the nation’s top collegiate offensive line.
The Wolverines also began the 2023 season fourth among all programs in total returning games played by offensive linemen with 245.
The offensive line has had all five starters earn some form of all-conference recognition in each of the past two seasons.
Team captain Trevor Keegan has started 34 games at left guard and appeared in 42 games overall.
He has played 2,076 career snaps with only being called for two penalties.
Karsen Barnhart has made 27 career starts, including all 12 games this season. He has started eight games at right tackle and four at left tackle.
Stanford transfer Drake Nugent has started at center in all 12 games this season. He was a four-year letter-winner at Stanford where he started 24 games at center.
Graduate student LaDarius Henderson, a transfer from Arizona State, has made seven starts at left tackle. He earned four varsity letters for Arizona State, where he started 29 games.
Trente Jones was inserted in the lineup after Zinter was injured against Ohio State. Jones has made six career starts at right tackle and four starts in six offensive linemen packages in his career.
Myles Hinton has started four games at right tackle and one at left tackle this season.
The loss of Zinter will test the depth of Michigan’s offensive line as he has started 42 games in his career. He was also a Mid-season first-team All-America selection.
Iowa also has an experienced offensive line in which the five listed starters have combined for 126 starts. Junior Mason Richman will make his 35th career start at left tackle in Saturday’s game.
Defensive line: Michigan has five defensive linemen that have started multiple games this season, including three that have started every game.
Senior Jaylen Harrell has started all 12 games as an edge defender and has made 27 starts overall as a Wolverine. He has 73 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks and two forced fumbles in his career. He 26 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and two forced fumbles this season.
Fellow edge rusher Braiden McGregor has also started all 12 games this season and he has 22 tackles, six tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and three pass breakups.
Kris Jenkins, a 6-foot-3, 305-pound senior, anchors Michigan’s interior line and is also a Bednarik Award semifinalist. He has appeared in 41 games with 30 career starts as a Wolverines.
Jenkins has started all 12 games this season and has amassed 29 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and one interception. He has 105 career tackles, seven tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks during his career.
Mason Graham has started 10 games at the other defensive tackle position and has 29 stops, 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and one fumble recovery. He was named first-team All-Big Ten by the league’s coaches.
Michigan’s front four on defense is tough, physical and aggressive, and a big reason why opponents are only avenging 91.4 rushing yards per game and just 3.0 yard per carry.
Michigan has held four opponents to less than 80 rushing yards this season.
Iowa also has a tough and physical defense line in which the four starters have combined to make 88 career starts, led by senior tackle Logan Lee with 39 career starts.
Iowa has six defensive linemen with at least 33 tackles and five with at least 41 stops. Logan Lee and Ethan Hurkett lead the defensive linemen with 49 tackles, followed by Deontae Craig with 48, Yahay Black with 46 and Joe Evans with 41.
Evans, a sixth-year senior defensive end, leads Iowa with 9.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hurries.
This was a tough decision because both units are rock solid.
Linebacker: This was another tough choice because both teams are loaded at the linebacker positions.
Michigan has three linebackers with extensive starting experience: Junior Colson (33 games), Michael Barrett (32 games) and Earnest Hausman, who started seven games for Nebraska in 2022.
Colson leads Michigan with 71 tackles this season, and he is also the team’s active leader in career tackles with 232. He has at least one tackle in 40 consecutive games, and he is a 2023 Lott IMPACT Trophy semifinalist.
Barrett has appeared in a school-record 61 games with 32 starts. He is also the winningest player in Michigan history with 58 victories as a Wolverine.
Barrett is second on the team with 45 tackles this season.
Hausmann has made at least one tackle in every game this season and has at least five stops in three games.
Iowa will counter with arguably the top linebacker tandem in the Big Ten in seniors Jay Higgins and Nick Jackson, a graduate transfer from Virginia.
Higgins, a Butkus Award semifinalist, has a team-high 141 tackles and he leads the Big Ten, and ranks third nationally, with an average of 11.8 tackles per game. That is the most by a player from a Power 5 school.
Jackson ranks second on the team with 91 tackles, and he now has 455 career tackles. He also has started 45 games in his career, including 33 for Virginia, and has played in 58 games overall.
Senior Kyler Fisher is Iowa’s third linebacker and plays when Iowa uses its 4-3 defensive alignment. The former walk-on has 26 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack this season.
Defensive backfield: And yet another tough choice as both units have performed at a high level throughout the season.
Iowa will be without its most celebrated defensive back, however, as junior cornerback Cooper DeJean will miss the rest of the season due to a lower leg injury that he suffered in practice about three weeks ago.
DeJean was named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year on Tuesday despite not playing in the last two regular-season games.
But even without DeJean, Iowa ‘s secondary still is formidable.
Senior safety Sebastian Castro, who earned Mid-Season All-America honors, has 52 tackles, nine tackles for loss, one sack, seven pass breakups and three interceptions, including a pick-six in the victory over Iowa State.
Castro has played both the cash position and strong safety this season. He plays the cash position when Iowa uses five defensive backs.
Senior free safety Quinn Schulte has made 25 career starts and played in 40 games overall.
He ranks third on the team, and he leads all the defensive backs with 59 tackles this season. He also has one interception, 2.5 tackles for loss and three pass breakups.
Sophomore Xavier Nwankpa, a former five-start recruit from Southeast Polk, has started 11 games this season at strong safety and has 40 tackles, one interception, two tackles for loss, one sack and two pass breakups.
Junior cornerback Jermari Harris has made 16 career starts, including 10 starts this season. He was suspended for the first two games this season.
Harris has 37 tackles, one interception and eight pass breakups this season.
Redshirt freshman Deshaun Lee, who is from Michigan, has replaced DeJean as the starting cornerback opposite of Harris. Lee also started the first two games this season when Harris was suspended.
Lee has 23 tackles and three pass breakups this season.
Michigan’s secondary has eight players with starting experience: Rod Moore (25), Mike Sainristil (24), Makarai Paige (17), Will Johnson (14), Josh Wallace (9), Keon Sabb (4), Keshaun Harris (3) and Quinten Johnson (1).
Sainristil, a former receiver, has played both the nickel back and cornerback this season. He has appeared in 59 games, including 26 in the secondary adn33 as a receiver.
He and sophomore cornerback Will Johnson both made first-team All-Big Ten this season. Johnson started at cornerback in all nine Big Ten games this season and compiled 20 tackles, one tackle for loss, three interceptions and four pass breakups.
He intercepted a pass that led to the first points scored against Ohio Ste last Saturday.
Special teams: This was an easy choice between Iowa and its opponents throughout the regular season because Iowa features one of the best punter/kicker tandems in the Big Ten in senior punter Tory Taylor and sophomore kicker Drew Stevens.
However, Stevens has struggled recently, missing four of his last eight field-goal attempts, while Michigan has two reliable kicking specialists that have yet to struggle.
Stevens also had two kickoffs that rolled out of bounds against Nebraska, causing Kirk Ferentz to turn to backup kicker Marshall Meeder to attempt the last-second field goal against the Cornhuskers.
Meeder made the field goal from 38 yards as time expired, lifting Iowa to a 13-10 victory.
Stevens has made 18-of-26 field-goal attempts this season and has 39 touchbacks on 52 kickoffs.
Taylor, one of three finalists for the Ray Guy Award, could have a huge impact in Saturday’s game due to his ability to flip field position.
The 26-year-old Melbourne, Australia native leads the nation with 79 punts and is averaging 47.7 yards per attempt. He has had 31 punts travel at least 50 yards and 29 that were downed inside the 20.
Michigan is one of few teams that can hold its own when matched against Iowa’s kicking specialists.
Tommy Doman has punted 36 times for a 45.0 average, while kicker James Turner has connected on 12-of-14 field-goal attempts and 56 of 57 point-after kicks.
Turner scored a season-best 12 points in the 30-24 win over Ohio State last season, converting three field goals from 50, 38 and 37 yards and all three point-after kicks.
DeJean’s injury also has an impact on Iowa’s return game as he was named the Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year for his performance as a punt returner.
If Michigan has anything that might be less than a strength, it could its return game where Semaj Morgan is only averaging 15.9 yards on 10 kick returns, while Jake Thaw averages 7.1 yards on 15 punt returns.
Junior walk-on Kaden Wetjen has replaced DeJean as the punt returner. Wetjen had a 17-yard punt return that helped to set up Iowa’s game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter against Illinois.
Prediction: Michigan 23, Iowa 5