IOWA CITY, Ia. — If Iowa is going to upset Michigan, D.J. Johnson is going to have to have his best game yet.
In fact, that goes for the entire Hawkeye secondary for Saturday’s 11 a.m., Fox-televised game in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Johnson, a redshirt freshman cornerback, will get his third straight start as more-experienced corners Matt Hankins (hamstring) and Riley Moss (leg) are out with lingering injuries. Starting defensive tackle Brady Reiff (knee) also is out for the third straight game.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz did offer a morsel of good secondary news, though. Sophomore Julius Brents (who started four games a year ago) was on track to play for the first time this season. But it'll be Johnson getting the start against a talented Michigan receiving corps; Brents (who had a knee injury) will have a role on special teams and perhaps in sub-packages.
“He’s growing up faster than we expected,” fifth-year senior cornerback Michael Ojemudia said of Johnson, an Indianapolis product who chose Iowa over offers from LSU and Notre Dame. “He has miles to go. But we know that as of now, we’re going to need him to have his best game.
“If we neutralize the outside, we have the best chance of winning. This game is going to be up to us."
Michigan has a slew of play-makers on the outside, and the 14th-ranked Hawkeyes expect they’ll be tested by a passing game that threw for 335 yards last weekend in a 52-0 rout of Rutgers. Ronnie Bell (17 catches, 263 yards) has been quarterback Shea Patterson’s favorite target so far, but the Wolverines also feature big-time recruits Tarik Black, Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones (all among Rivals' national top 12 at wide receiver in the Class of 2017).
Ojemudia, a co-captain, figures Michigan has studied Iowa’s 18-17 win at Iowa State, in which the Cyclones were able to strike for 9.3 yards per attempt (including two long touchdowns).
The challenge facing Iowa’s secondary carries over to the team. The Hawkeyes (4-0 overall, 1-0 Big Ten Conference) know the opportunity for a defining win is there for the taking. They’re listed as 4½ -point underdogs.
"With us being 4-0,” Ojemudia said, “it’s an even bigger opportunity to show the country what we’re capable of.
"This is definitely a statement game to see what we’re made of as a team.”
Alaric Jackson had a good practice Tuesday, suggesting the third-year starting tackle will be back in the lineup.
Iowa listed Jackson, who has been out since the first quarter of Week 1 with a knee injury, as a second-teamer on its depth chart Monday. But Ferentz said the 6-foot-7, 320-pound junior would be a first-teamer in Ann Arbor if the rest of the week goes well.
“He looked good today. The film looked good," Ferentz said. "As long as he can keep progressing (and) as long as he’s capable of starting, we’ll start him. He’s one of our starters."
While there's no doubt Iowa's offensive line has performed admirably without Jackson, it's better with a second-team all-Big Ten pick in the lineup. The fact that Iowa can put two future NFL tackles on the field against Michigan's bevy of pass-rushers is a significant, positive development.
Look for Cole Banwart and Levi Paulsen (who was filling in at right tackle, with Tristan Wirfs going left) and perhaps Justin Britt to be rotational right guards on Saturday.
Kaevon Merriweather's return from a foot injury provides much-needed depth.
Merriweather was so-so — good flashes, bad flashes — in his first career start against Miami of Ohio, but the sophomore free safety hasn't played since after hurting his foot the day before the Rutgers game. His replacement, walk-on Jack Koerner, has been solid but also had teachable moments in three starts since.
Who starts Saturday?
Probably Koerner, but Ferentz said both would play.
Merriweather's injury shows how tough circumstances make a team stronger. Iowa uncovered Koerner (who provided two big plays in the big win at Iowa State) in the process while also giving true freshman Dane Belton a closer look at safety. Now, Ferentz said, Belton is being acclimated to the cash position when Iowa goes to a 4-2-5 defense.
And now if someone goes down in Ann Arbor, the Hawkeyes should feel a little more comfortable with their next man in.
Iowa has won five of the last six against Michigan, perhaps none more memorable than in 2016.
Fifth-year senior tight end Nate Wieting remembers that Saturday night well at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes were badly trounced the previous week at Penn State and were 24-point underdogs against the third-ranked, unbeaten Wolverines.
With star tight end George Kittle sidelined, Wieting would play a prominent role as a redshirt freshman in that game. An in-the-trenches battle went Iowa’s way, 14-13, on Keith Duncan’s last-second field goal.
“We knew that they were favored by a lot, and that didn’t matter,” Wieting said. “We wanted to go out there and play as hard as we could for as long as we could and see what would happen. We were able to get it done that night.”
The disparity in rosters isn’t as stark this time around. But lessons can still be learned; the Hawkeyes are taking an underdog mentality to face the No. 18 Wolverines (3-1, 0-1).
"It’s a little different position this time around," Wieting said. "I think it’s two pretty evenly matched teams."
With Monday’s legislative news out of California, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley delivered a measured response.
California became the first state to enact a law that allows college athletes to sign endorsement deals, something the NCAA feels is unconstitutional.
Here was what Stanley said on the matter.
“I heard Tim Tebow talk about this with Stephen A. Smith, whatever show he was on,” Stanley said. “That’s the whole point of playing collegiate sports: You’re playing it for the love of the game.
"It’s just a betterment of ourselves in general. And again, we get a lot of benefits that people don’t see. For me to come to school here from Wisconsin, if I paid out of pocket it would be $40,000 a year. That’s more than a lot of people get to live on in a year."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.