Iowa pass game needs prayers answered vs. Michigan

Chris Cuellar

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Only one team in college football is ranked in the top 10 for passing defense and rushing defense.

Only one defense has two semifinalists up for the Jim Thorpe Award, given annually to the nation’s top defensive back.

The Hawkeyes (5-4, 3-3) will see that unit up close on Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium.

“They’re unique,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said of No. 3 Michigan on Tuesday. “They’ve got good guys and a lot of speed. It’s going to take our best football to come out and play well and get a win.”

Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard threw for 204 yards against Penn State last week, just the third time this season he's topped 200 passing yards.

The Wolverines (9-0, 6-0) are allowing just 138.9 passing yards per game, easily the best mark in FBS. The defensive superlatives rattle on, despite Maryland racking up 289 passing yards last week -- Michigan won the game 59-3 -- and coach Jim Harbaugh’s team feeling national and Big Ten tension.

“They are the best defense that I’ve ever seen on film,” Iowa offensive lineman Ike Boettger offered.

“But we’re not going to go in and play scared or anything like that. We’re going to go in and try to play our game.”

Scoring defense: first. Red zone defense: first. Third down defense: first.

So, how exactly are the Hawkeyes supposed to score? A struggling receiving corps is going to need its best game of this disappointing 2016 season.

“You don’t want to force stuff,” Beathard said. “But we know we’re going to have to take some shots.”

Michigan's versatile Jabrill Peppers leads a gifted defense that will face Iowa on Saturday.

Reviving a vertical passing game won’t come easy.

Iowa is 11th in the Big Ten in passing offense, good for 106th nationally. Beathard has topped 200 passing yards three times in nine tries this season while playing behind six different starting offensive line configurations.

Redshirt senior Riley McCarron remains the team’s top receiver, grabbing 34 passes for 378 yards and three touchdowns in nine games. He landed right around his averages in last week’s loss at Penn State: four grabs for 42 yards. Fellow starter Jerminic Smith was a small bright spot on a dim night in Happy Valley with his highest output of the season -- five catches for 85 yards and a touchdown -- but is still floating around 30 yards receiving per game. Starting tight end George Kittle remains significantly limited by injury.

All that production doesn’t bode well against a hyper-aggressive secondary seeking College Football Playoff respect.

Only three conference teams pass for fewer yards each game than Iowa: Minnesota, Illinois and Rutgers. Michigan beat the Illini and Scarlet Knights last month and allowed exactly 100 total passing yards in the two wins. The pass rush, the run-stopping and the versatility all contribute to the success.

“It’s really hard to find many cracks or weaknesses,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said.

“Statistics don’t always tell the whole story. But if you go through the Big Ten stats, it’s hard to find any category where they’re not in the top two or three. It’s all deserved and earned.”

And that team success takes some of the spotlight off of the two players trying to pry the Thorpe Award from Iowa senior Desmond King.

Do-it-all star Jabrill Peppers and King’s friend Jourdan Lewis have loaded up highlight reels with interceptions, coverage plays and crunching hits. They’ll both try to end Iowa’s three-game home win streak against the Wolverines.

“(Peppers) is a really dynamic return guy, but he plays great on defense and he’s a threat offensively, too,” Ferentz said. “He’s down in the box, too. I’ve never seen anybody that did that and then returned kicks and punts and looked like a corner or safety back there.”

Lewis seems the more likely Michigan man to claim postseason honors in the secondary, as Peppers often lines up at linebacker and can earn plaudits for his offensive and return abilities.

“It’s good to see guys out of your city having success,” King said. “There aren’t many opportunities in Detroit, so it’s good to see him excel and be at a high level.”

Vegas still considers Saturday’s nationally televised game a mismatch, with the Wolverines running as a three-touchdown favorite. But any semblance of passing game success could give the Hawkeyes a realistic shot at victory in front of their home crowd.

“They’ve given up a few plays on tape,” Beathard said. “Not too often, but there are definitely shots to be had. It’s going to be a tough, hard-nosed and physical football game.”