As key parts of defensive gameplan, Iowa football’s Michigan natives cherishing chance to face Wolverines
IOWA CITY — If Iowa has any chance of pulling a football stunner Saturday night, the Hawkeyes' MVP unit must deliver a near-flawless performance. Defensive success has carried Iowa to the doorstep of a Big Ten title. Obtaining such hardware will require slowing Michigan in a way few teams have this season.
It seems fitting that two of Iowa's defensive anchors were plucked from the Wolverines' backyard — likely without them even knowing. For Michigan natives Zach VanValkenburg and Kaevon Merriweather, the path to this year's Big Ten championship game has been anything but straight. The former was a Division II defensive lineman not long ago. The latter seemed destined for a basketball future until Iowa swooped in.
That makes Saturday's opportunity — on a grand stage, against the program whose pageantry has blanketed their home state for decades — even sweeter.
"They obviously have a very storied football program," VanValkenburg said. "biggest stadium in the United States. So obviously, those things are appealing to kids, especially one growing up in Michigan. At the very least, that's given me a lot of respect for their program."
Neither VanValkenburg nor Merriweather grew up touting maize and blue at every turn. But both admitted they couldn't escape the Michigan arura if they tried.
VanValkenburg hails from Zeeland, Michigan — a lakeside town that sits about two hours and change west of Ann Arbor. The 6-foot-4 defensive end got a little closer at his first collegiate stop. Hillsdale College, where VanValkenburg was the GMAC defensive lineman of the year in 2018, resides about 90 minutes southwest of the Big House. The two places have to fight off some Michigan State intrusion, but Wolverine adoration flows freely through both towns.
VanValkenburg recounted his father's deep love for Michigan football, produced through a lengthy life spent in the Wolverine State. Sons often follow the rooting interests of those before them. VanValkenburg had to at least cheer for Michigan some as an adolescent, right?
Yeah ... not quite.
"Since my dad grew up a Michigan fan," VanValkenburg said, "I generally just rooted for whomever was playing Michigan that week.
"My dad was born in Michigan, grew up in Michigan just like me. He's been a Michigan fan really up until I transferred here. This might be a little bit of a conflict for him, but I think I know who he's really rooting for."
Merriweather was even closer to the Michigan action. His hometown of Belleville is positioned about 20 minutes east of the Ann Arbor campus. Merriweather's previous stomping ground — Belleville High School — has more than five NFL alums, including former Michigan great Ian Gold.
Michigan fandom flowed through the Merriweather family tree as well, with the current Iowa safety absorbing more of it than VanValkenburg. One of Merriweather's uncles champions the Wolverines hard — and although Merriweather was quick to say he was never a Michigan super fan of any kind, dodging the program's prestige entirely was an impossible task.
"I gravitated a little bit toward being a Michigan fan, especially when (former quarterback) Denard Robinson was there (from 2009-12)," Merriweather said. "I was definitely a huge Michigan fan then. Just definitely watching him and those teams was pretty great.
"A lot of my family roots for Michigan too, but I wasn't really ever a full Michigan fan. I'd just cheer for them here and there."
Merriweather had his first home-state battle last season, when the Hawkeyes rolled to a 49-7 thrashing over Michigan State inside Kinnick Stadium. Merriweather was a starting safety as a sophomore to begin 2019, but soon hit the injury list after hurting a foot in practice prior to the Hawkeyes' game versus Rutgers. Iowa's first trip to the Big House in seven years loomed a month later.
Merriweather tried to accelerate his rehab as quickly as possible, hoping he could at least be healthy enough to play some sort of role on that day. He made the travel roster — but watched the 10-3 loss from the sidelines. Another chance slipped away last season after COVID issues axed the Champions Week showdown against the Wolverines.
"In 2019, the (Michigan week) was the week I got back. And I was actually still injured a little bit. But I was trying to force myself to come back because I really wanted to play in that game so badly," Merriweather said. "That's every (Michigan) kid's dream, and that was definitely a dream of mine to play in the Big House in front of my friends and family.
"And then last year's game didn't happen either. So I always personally look forward to playing Michigan, and I know my mom does too. So just being able to actually play that game this year, especially with this type of scene, is something that's becoming surreal."
Unfathomable will turn to tangible come kickoff Saturday night in Indianapolis. The Hawkeyes are double-digit underdogs and will likely need a defensive showing for the ages to halt Michigan's balanced attack, which most notably features quarterback Cade McNamara and running back Hassan Haskins. Iowa is the Wolverines' last obstacle en route to their first College Football Playoff appearance.
But if the Hawkeyes do emerge victorious, VanValkenburg and Merriweather will almost certainly be in the middle of the action. You can bet the jubilation coming from those two will be even louder than most.
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.