Ann Arbor, MI – The 23rd-ranked Michigan Wolverines turn their attention to the Iowa Hawkeyes for a Big Ten Conference matchup at Michigan Stadium.
Michigan has picked up steam over the past month and a half, winning five of its last six contests entering the weekend. Most recently, the Wolverines notched a dramatic 38-31 overtime victory against Northwestern this past weekend, improving to 8-1 all-time in overtime games. It took a 53-yard completion on a Hail Mary to set up the game-tying field goal at the end of regulation, where the Maize and Blue eventually prevailed.
"I've got a lot of belief in this football team," head coach Brady Hoke said at his weekly press conference. "I've got a lot belief in how they're going to go out with effort and how they're going to go out to execute at their highest level and how they're going to play with a toughness."
Iowa's resolve has certainly been tested of late, as the team is currently riding its first four-game losing streak since 2007. Each of the Hawkeyes' last two losses has come by a margin of just three points, including Saturday's 27-24 setback to Purdue on a last-second field goal. The Hawkeyes can still qualify for a bowl game for the 12th consecutive season, but they'll need to win at Michigan this weekend and then beat Nebraska next Friday.
Picking up a road win at The Big House has proven to be a very tall order, as Michigan has won 13 straight home games under Hoke. UM holds a commanding 40-13-4 advantage in the all-time series, although Iowa has won the last three meetings, including a 24-16 victory over the Wolverines last November in Iowa City.
Iowa's offense was never really able to find its rhythm against Purdue, as the Hawkeyes were out-gained, 490-264 and managed only 16 first downs to the Boilermakers' 26. A big part of that had to do with the team's lack of a running game, which led to quite a few third-and-long situations. Against a Purdue squad that entered the game ranked 11th in the conference and 94th nationally in rushing defense, Damon Bullock found very few creases, finishing with only 43 rushing yards on 23 carries (1.9 ypc). The Hawkeyes pride themselves on ball control, as they rank ninth in the nation in fewest turnovers lost and have played a turnover-free game five times this season. But as they have found out often throughout the season, even a turnover-free game means little without any semblance of a ground game.
Whereas the Hawkeyes have been able to take care of the football on offense, the defense has collected at least one takeaway in eight of nine games this season. In fact, the defense has even managed to score in each of its last two games. Last week against Purdue, it was cornerback Micah Hyde returning a fumble for a touchdown to cut the deficit to three late in the third quarter. On the season, Iowa has recovered 11 fumbles to rank third in the Big Ten. However, while takeaways are always nice, the defense has struggled at times to come up with critical stops. After a failed fourth-down conversion at the Purdue 34-yard line, the Boilermakers took over possession with 16 seconds to play in regulation. A 17-yard scramble and a 20-yard completion later, and Purdue was kicking the game-winning field goal through the uprights.
Michigan junior quarterback Devin Gardner made his second straight start last week in place of Denard Robinson, who went through warmups prior to the Northwestern game but wound up sitting out due to his right elbow injury. Gardner proceeded to guide the Wolverines to their second straight lopsided victory and even earned Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week honors. Gardner compiled 333 total yards and accounted for four touchdowns. His 53- yard completion to Roy Roundtree in the final seconds of regulation helped force overtime, and Gardner sealed the outcome on a one-yard touchdown run in the extra session.
"It always helps when you can throw the ball and the safeties have to get a little further back off the line of scrimmage," Hoke noted about what Gardner brings to Michigan's offense.
Hoke also said that Robinson remains day to day, and the fact that Saturday's game is Senior Day would have no extra bearing on his availability.
"It won't have anything to do with it," Hoke said. (Robinson's) health is what it will have to do with."
Defensively, UM enters the contest ranked first in the country in pass defense, allowing only 149.2 yards per game through the air. In fact, the Wolverines have not allowed 200 passing yards in any game this season. The unit seems to have gotten more and more comfortable as the season has progressed. In Big Ten play, they lead the conference in scoring defense (15.0 ppg), total defense (280.5 ypg) and pass defense (145.7 ypg). Last week, the Wolverines held Northwestern to only 183 passing yards, although they did give up three passing TDs. Most of NU's damage was inflicted on the ground, where option quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark combined for 186 yards.