ANN ARBOR, Mich. — As Iowa players scarfed down a post-practice brunch Tuesday at the Hansen Football Performance Center, a replay of the Sept. 21 Michigan-Wisconsin game was being shown on a nearby big-screen television.
Perhaps it was a not-so-subtle reminder that the Wolverines and their four- and five-star players can be pushed around. Wisconsin dominated that Saturday in Madison, 35-14, and the listless Wolverines failed to show much fight in a one-sided blowout that was 28-0 at halftime.
As 14th-ranked Iowa (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten Conference) prepares for its biggest test of the season to date, its program mantra of “tough, smart, physical” has been proven — by Wisconsin — as a recipe for victory against No. 18 Michigan (3-1, 0-1).
The Wolverines are favored by four points in Saturday’s 11 a.m. CDT matchup, televised by Fox. Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt will have the call for the day’s biggest game in the Big Ten Conference.
“Whoever is the more physical team at the end of the game is probably going to come out with the victory,” Iowa linebacker Djimon Colbert said. “That’s what we’re focused on.”
Both programs should be highly motivated.
Michigan, in its homecoming game, must rally the troops and remind us why it was picked to win the Big Ten East. A loss, and the days could be numbered for the Jim Harbaugh era.
Iowa, looking as good as it has in a long time, is driven to take a big step forward but will have to also combat a hostile environment. A crowd of 111,000-plus is expected.
A game with such high stakes will test each team’s culture. And that's why the Hawkeyes’ best chance to knock off Michigan is to knock them to the ground. Make the Wolverines feel that same doubt and hesitancy they showed at Wisconsin.
There’s no doubt the Wolverines have the better athletes.
There’s also little doubt that Iowa — with its team strengths on the offensive and defensive lines — is capable of replicating Wisconsin's physicality.
“At the end of the day,” Colbert said, “it’s about who wants it more. Not the stars you had coming into college.”
Iowa senior tight end Nate Wieting reported strong attention to details this week in practice, coming on the heels of what players widely called their best week of practice in advance of a 48-3 rout of Middle Tennessee State — a team that Michigan defeated by a much tighter margin, 40-21.
Playing physical, Wieting said, is as much about preparation as man-on-man strength.
“It’s going to take a lot of work this week to understand what looks we’re getting, what we’re trying to do on offense, where we’re trying to attack, those sorts of things,” Wieting said Tuesday. “Paying attention to those little details and seeing the big picture allows us to play fast and play physical.”
When the season began, I picked Michigan to win this one comfortably.
But the circumstances have changed. When studying this matchup, I see one team (Iowa) playing consistently tough, smart and physical. I see another team (Michigan) that isn't — with one of the worst turnover rates in the country and a running game struggling to be average (at 3.5 yards a carry).
To pick Michigan would be to take a blind leap of faith that its premium athletes will magically string it all together and hold up for 60 minutes against a tenacious, relentless opponent. To pick Iowa would be to affirm what has already been proven to work against the Wolverines.
Give me the Hawkeyes to break away early and hold on late to improve to 5-0, maybe jump into the national top 10 ... and set up an even bigger game Oct. 12 against Penn State.
Prediction: Iowa 27, Michigan 23
Now for an examination of Saturday's other Big Ten games:
Purdue (1-3, 0-1) at No. 11 Penn State (4-0, 1-0)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., ESPN
Vegas line: Penn State by 28½
Prediction: The Boilermakers are arguably the most injured team in the country. Quarterback Elijah Sindelar (broken clavicle, could be season-ending) and Heisman Trophy candidate Rondale Moore (hamstring; out at least this week) are the latest high-profile subtractions from the lineup. Meanwhile, Penn State brings a top-five scoring offense (50.0 points a game) and scoring defense (7.5) to the table. Of note: These are Iowa’s next two opponents, first Penn State, then Purdue (Oct. 19) at Kinnick Stadium. Penn State 45, Purdue 21
Maryland (2-2, 0-1) at Rutgers (1-3, 0-2)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., BTN
Vegas line: Maryland by 12½
Prediction: Maryland is coming off a 59-0 loss to Penn State in which it gained 128 yards; Rutgers is coming off a 52-0 loss to Michigan in which it gained 152 yards … and fired coach Chris Ash. Which team rallies behind its coach? Probably the one under the first-year coach that’s trying to build something. Maryland 35, Rutgers 14
Kent State (2-2) at No. 9 Wisconsin (4-0, 2-0)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., ESPNU
Vegas line: Wisconsin by 35½
Prediction: The fact that Auburn rushed for 467 yards against Kent State should be affirmation that the ground-and-pound Badgers can name the score. It’ll be interesting to see how much workload Wisconsin gives Heisman Trophy candidate Jonathan Taylor, who is averaging 21.0 carries a game. Bigger matchups against Michigan State (Oct. 12), Ohio State (Oct. 26) and Iowa (Nov. 9) are coming soon. Wisconsin 52, Kent State 6
Illinois (2-2, 0-1) at Minnesota (4-0, 1-0)
Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., BTN
Vegas line: Minnesota by 14
Prediction: As crazy as it sounds, this is a revenge spot for P.J. Fleck’s Gophers, who have won seven of eight games since getting embarrassed by Lovie Smith and Illinois, 55-31, last season. Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan (21 of 22, 396 yards, four TDs vs. Purdue) is the surprise Big Ten leader in passing efficiency and has a terrific cast of receivers. Don't sleep on the unranked Gophers in the West Division. Minnesota 38, Illinois 21
Northwestern (1-3, 0-2) at Nebraska (3-2, 1-1)
Time, TV: 3 p.m., Fox
Vegas line: Nebraska by 7½
Prediction: Northwestern's valiant effort last week at Wisconsin (in a 24-15 loss in which it allowed just one offensive touchdown) should be a positive sign for the Wildcats, who typically ascend as the season wears on under Pat Fitzgerald. Nebraska's abysmal performance against Ohio State (in a 48-7 loss in which Adrian Martinez threw for 47 yards and was intercepted three times) is a concerning one for the Huskers. Nebraska 24, Northwestern 19
No. 23 Michigan State (4-1, 2-0) at No. 5 Ohio State (5-0, 2-0)
Time, TV: 6:30 p.m., ABC
Vegas line: Ohio State by 20
Prediction: The Buckeyes look the part of a national-title contender, but this will certainly be their sternest test yet. Michigan State presents a gritty run defense (No. 4 nationally) against a high-powered Ohio State rushing attack (No. 7 nationally). As good as Justin Fields has been for Ohio State (16 TDs passing, seven rushing), Brian Lewerke is leading the league by a mile in passing yards (1,325). Ohio State 31, Michigan State 17
Last week: 4-3 against the spread (6-1 straight-up)
Season: 21-25-1 ATS (36-11 SU)
All-time: 123-113-2 ATS (173-65 SU)
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.