Analysis: How the Hawkeyes can upset No. 3 Michigan

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Of course there’s a path to victory for the Iowa football team Saturday. A footpath perhaps, but if sport teaches us anything it’s that even floppy-eared underdogs can lash out when cornered.

No. 3 Michigan is 9-0 with an average victory margin of 37 points. The Wolverines are three-touchdown favorites for the 7 p.m. game at soldout Kinnick Stadium. They are facing a 5-4 Iowa squad so downtrodden that a Penn State player basically accused it of quitting in last Saturday’s 41-14 defeat.

Everyone seems to expect an epic blowout for the visitors. Except for the home team.

Leistikow: Ferentz, Hawkeye players defend their heart

If Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse is cradling a football heading into the end zone again Saturday -- as he did last season against Nebraska -- it would go a long way toward helping the Hawkeyes upend No. 3 Michigan. Of course, a half-dozen other things would also have to go Iowa's way in order to pull off a monumental upset.

“When the ball’s snapped, all bets are off. You’ve got to do it. You’ve got to go out and prove it. And that’s what’s exciting about sports and that’s why it’s going to be fun to be competing Saturday night,” Hawkeye defensive end Parker Hesse said.

“The outside world has the deck stacked against you. Yeah, it’s a little different, but it’s a role you can definitely embrace and you can kind of go out there with a ‘screw this’ kind of attitude. I don’t care what people say. We’re just going to line up, we’re going to play football.”

Yes, they are. Hawkeye fans may want to avert their eyes. But no game is utterly hopeless. Here are the seven things that must happen for Iowa to flip the script.

Malaise and Blue

Michigan has to open the door by playing its first uninspired game of the season. There’s no way Iowa can win if the Wolverines are at their best.

This will be just the third road game of the season for Michigan, which has previous wins at Rutgers (78-0) and Michigan State (32-23). Those teams are a combined 0-12 in Big Ten play.

The Wolverines’ most-anticipated matchup of the season, at Ohio State, is two weeks away.

Iowa, Michigan trending in opposite directions

Is Michigan feeling too good about itself? Has its recent competition been too soft? Are the players peeking ahead 14 days?

Iowa needs the answer to be “yes” to at least one of those questions.

Bring Blackout to life

It will likely be a skeptical crowd of 70,000 that files into Kinnick, clad in black and feeling bleak.

The Hawkeyes need a big play in the first five minutes to give those fans — and maybe even themselves — hope. The defense seems likelier than the offense to provide it.

Iowa pass game needs prayers answered vs. Michigan

However it happens, Iowa must turn it into a touchdown and let Michigan know that it’s in for a battle. The Wolverines have only trailed twice this season. That’s remarkable.

The Hawkeyes won’t win unless they score first, and the sooner the better.

Wrestle the ball away

Michigan has turned the ball over only six times, the best mark in the Big Ten. Iowa has forced 12 turnovers.

This is a tall order, but the Hawkeyes must find a way to finish plus-2 in the turnover battle. Bonus points if one of them results in a touchdown.

That’s not limited to star cornerback Desmond King, although this would be perfect timing for his second pick-six of the season. Last year, Bo Bower and Hesse also turned that feat, and getting a lift from an unlikely source such as that would be monumental for Iowa’s cause.

That also requires the Hawkeye offense to hold onto the ball, but that hasn’t been a problem so far. Iowa has committed only six turnovers.

Something special

King has piled up 1,658 yards on kickoff and punt returns in his four seasons at Iowa. With the ball in his hands in the open field, he may be the Hawkeyes’ most dangerous player (tailback Akrum Wadley being the other).

First, Iowa’s defense must do its part by forcing punts, not kickoffs. Then, King needs to flip the field twice in the return game to set up an offense that will surely have a hard time driving the field against the nation’s best defense.

C.J. Beathard must hold up to punishing Michigan defense

“We don’t expect nothing from anyone,” King, a Michigan native, said of his Hawkeyes being dismissed in this matchup. “It’s just outside noise, rankings, anything like that. It happens to a lot of people when the underdog beats the team that’s voted to win.”

No Hawkeye player is better positioned to back up those words than King. If he can’t do it on defense because Michigan won’t challenge him, special teams will give him that chance.


A Hawkeye defense hadn’t been humiliated like it was last week since 1999. Penn State put up 599 yards against Iowa and made it look easy.

It’s hard to imagine that happening two weeks in a row, and clearly it can’t if Iowa is to have any chance. The defense must regain its backbone against a Michigan team that loves to toy with opponents out of bizarre formations.

“They’re a little unconventional. One thing they like to do is they borrow plays that have beat you in the past from other teams,” Hesse said. “A lot of their schemes are just, they’re going to line up and they’re going to try intimidate you and they’re going to try to impose their will.”

Just one, baby

It’s unrealistic to expect much from the Iowa offense. It has been held below 300 yards in all four defeats, three of them at home. Tight end George Kittle is not at full health, the offensive line is still in flux with Cole Croston unlikely to play again, and it’s clear by now that Beathard has faith in only two wide receivers — Riley McCarron and Jerminic Smith.

But one time Saturday, it will have to muster a true scoring drive, meaning 70 yards or longer. Just once.

Beathard acknowledged the struggle ahead.

“If we go three-and-out a couple of times, we expect our defense to get a stop,” he said. “But we know at some point we’re going to have to get the ball moving a little bit, whether it’s the first drive, whether it’s the third drive, or whenever it is. We like to be productive offensively and we know at some point in the game we’re going to have to do that in order for us to win.”

Yes, at some point, the offense is going to have to score points.

Summing up, that would be one touchdown from the defense, one from the special teams and one from the offense. And then hope that 21 points is enough against a Michigan squad held below that number only once this season (14 against Wisconsin).

Finally, fortune

If the Hawkeyes can accomplish all that, perhaps they’ll be due for some luck. And you know somewhere, somehow Saturday they’re going to need Michigan to have a little misfortune.

A field-goal try that clangs into the upright and back down into the end zone.

A running back who slips and falls short of a first down.

A pair of defensive backs who run into each other and let an Iowa receiver get free.

The weather forecast calls for a clear night sky Saturday. So there should be no problem seeing early if the stars have aligned for the Hawkeyes.