Iowa will try and do something it hasn't accomplished in nearly 40 years when the Hawkeyes face Michigan in the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday in Indianapolis. Iowa's last outright Big Ten title was way back in 1985. The Hawkeyes have claimed a share of it three times since, the most recent coming in 2004 when they split it with the Wolverines.
This will be Iowa's second appearance in the Big Ten title game since its inception in 2011. The Hawkeyes lost to Michigan State 16-13 in 2015. Both teams enter this game on four-game winning streaks, but Michigan is favored and also is playing for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
So the Hawkeyes have a chance to not just play spoiler but also make some history. Here are five reasons why they'll do just that on Saturday night in Lucas Oil Stadium.
5 Reasons Why Iowa Will Win the Big Ten Championship Game
1. Hawkeyes' defense tailor-made for Wolverines
A hallmark of Kirk Ferentz's teams during his 23-year tenure has been rock-solid defense. And that's certainly the case with this year's squad. Iowa is 14th in total defense (315.8 ypg) and tied for ninth nationally in scoring defense (17.3 ppg). More importantly, the Hawkeyes have been stingy against the run, which has been Michigan's bread and butter this season.
The Wolverines are ninth in the FBS in rushing offense, averaging 224.9 yards per game with 35 touchdowns on the ground. Overall, Iowa is 14th nationally in rushing defense (105.8 ypg) and has given up a total of 10 rushing touchdowns in 12 games. Against Big Ten teams, the Hawkeyes are yielding just 3.2 yards per carry and for the season has surrendered four runs of 20-plus yards. Michigan has 22 such gains as a team and just gashed Ohio State for 297 rushing yards and six touchdowns. On paper, Iowa appears to be a formidable opponent for the Wolverines' ground-oriented attack.
2. Tyler going Good(son) lately
Another characteristic of Ferentz's most successful teams has been an ability to run the ball effectively. Statistically speaking, this has not been Iowa's strong point this season. The Hawkeyes enter this game 11th in the Big Ten in rushing offense, averaging just 121.2 yards per game and only 3.3 yards per carry. However, leading rusher Tyler Goodson comes into Saturday's matchup with momentum. He's gone over 100 yards in three of his last four games, including 156 last Saturday in the come-from-behind win over Nebraska. He will need to continue this against a Michigan defense that's done a good job against the run, holding Big Ten teams to 126.6 yards per game.
3. Special teams ace
Often forgotten, the special teams aspect can be critical, especially in a game that's set to pit two strong defenses against each other, meaning points and more importantly, field position, could be at a premium. When it comes to the return game, Iowa has the best in the Big Ten in Charlie Jones. The senior wide receiver was just named the conference's Rodgers-Dwight Return Specialist of the Year. Jones leads the Big Ten and ranks second in the FBS in total kick return yards with 605. He also returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in a win over Illinois on Nov. 20. Michigan may try and negate Jones' impact on kickoffs, but as the return versus the Illini showed, the only way to really do that is to boot it out of the end zone.
4. Won't beat themselves
Iowa has made a living off of turnovers this season, especially interceptions. The Hawkeyes lead the nation with 22 interceptions and have returned three of them for scores. The secondary is headlined by Riley Moss, who was named the Big Ten Conference Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year earlier this week, and Dane Belton. Belton is tied for the national lead with five interceptions, while Moss has recorded four and turned two of those into defensive scores. Eleven different Iowa defenders have picked off at least one pass this season, a big reason why the defense has given up just 13 touchdowns through the air.
Besides forcing teams into mistakes, the Hawkeyes don't make many of their own. They are first in the Big Ten in turnover margin (+13), which ties them for third nationally. Iowa also is among the country's least penalized teams, averaging just four per game. So whatever the Wolverines accomplish on Saturday they will have to earn, on both sides of the ball.
5. Easier turnaround
Both teams are coming off of big wins over rivals last week, victories that secured their spot in the Big Ten Championship Game. However, even though Iowa had to rally from a 15-point, third-quarter deficit on the road to beat Nebraska, it was nothing compared to what Michigan experienced in its win at home against Ohio State.
The Wolverines had lost eight in a row to their archrivals and were desperate to put an end to their losing streak, especially at home with so much at stake. Michigan accomplished its goal, but it's worth wondering what the Wolverines have left in the tank. Not saying motivation will be an issue, since there's plenty left for them to play for, but it's not outlandish to expect Jim Harbaugh's team to start out flat against Iowa coming off of such an emotional high. The question is can the Hawkeyes take advantage if that's the case?
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