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Leistikow's 4 Iowa-Michigan thoughts: Revenge factor real for underdog Hawkeyes

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IOWA CITY — Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday that Kinnick Stadium was where "top-five teams go to die."

Harbaugh, of course, would know — he’s suffered losses here as a Michigan quarterback (in 1985 while leading the nation’s No. 2 team) and coach (in 2016 leading a 9-0 squad favored by three-plus touchdowns). The Hawkeyes are 5-1 at home against top-five opponents in the last 14 years. The list, as tweeted out by The Athletic’s Scott Dochterman:

  • 2008: Beat No. 3 Penn State, 24-23, as 7½-point underdogs.
  • 2010: Beat No. 5 Michigan State, 37-6, as 6½-point favorites.
  • 2016: Beat No. 3 Michigan, 14-13, as 24-point underdogs.
  • 2017: Lost to No. 4 Penn State, 21-19, as 13-point underdogs.
  • 2017: Beat No. 3 Ohio State, 55-24, as 21-point underdogs.
  • 2021: Beat No. 4 Penn State, 23-20, as 2½-point favorites.

Does this history spell advantage Iowa? Or advantage Michigan? We’ll find out in Saturday’s 11:05 a.m. CT clash between the fourth-ranked Wolverines (4-0) and 10½-point underdog Hawkeyes (3-1) at sold-out Kinnick Stadium.

“I don’t think it really helps us. The past is the past," Iowa senior defensive end John Waggoner said simply. "You’ve got to go out and execute. It’s about how good you play."

On one hand, there’s no disputing the Hawkeyes’ ability under Kirk Ferentz to rise up, ride the home crowd and tackle the enormous challenge in front of them. On another hand, the visitors’ knowledge of Iowa’s past prowess in these situations must be a factor. When Iowa upset Michigan in 2016 and Ohio State in 2017, few people in our state thought there was a realistic chance for an upset, let alone the folks in Ann Arbor or Columbus. Iowa snuck up on those teams and bit them.

This week, though, Michigan will be on upset alert. Harbaugh's public recognition of Iowa's history helps emphasize to his player that they can't take this road trip lightly.

As businesslike as Iowa's approach typically is, a few players Tuesday discussed the motivation on the home team's side.

"The people on this team, for the most part, weren’t recruited by Michigan or Ohio State or Penn State. Obviously, there’s some that probably were. But we feel like we can play with any team, and our program has shown that over the years," said starting quarterback Spencer Petras, who chose the Hawkeyes over Oregon State. "As underrecruited as we may be, we’re still a pretty good football team. I think it’s something to take pride in. But it doesn’t really mean anything if we don’t go out there and play well on Saturday."

According to Blair Sanderson of Hawkeye Report, 12 current rostered Hawkeyes had a Michigan scholarship offer out of high school, including five starters in Waggoner, offensive linemen Connor Colby and Beau Stephens, defensive tackle Logan Lee and running back Gavin Williams. 

You don't hear the word "revenge" too much about the Hansen Football Performance Center, but there was definitely no disputing by safety Kaevon Merriweather that the Hawkeyes are seeking some payback for last year's 42-3 loss in the Big Ten Championship Game — which was being replayed on big screens Tuesday at the team facility. Recall: Iowa's defense got popped for two big plays in the first half, but otherwise played well for the first two quarters. The flood gates opened up with 21 Michigan points in the final 11 minutes as the Hawkeyes ran out of gas.

Merriweather noted that his position coach, defensive coordinator Phil Parker, took the loss especially hard. Parker, a Michigan State alum who most likely doesn't like Michigan one bit, probably will have a little extra juice for this rematch.

“Especially in our home stadium, the energy, the crowd we’re going to have (and) bringing in a top-five opponent," Merriweather said. "The crowd will definitely be a help, but having that feeling in the back of your head what happened last year is definitely going to help us."

Kirk Ferentz sees Michigan game as daunting challenge
Ferentz previews Saturday's game vs. the No. 4 Wolverines and references last year's 42-3 loss.
Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Jestin Jacobs’ unfortunate season-ending injury

The heartbreak for the fourth-year junior linebacker is real. Jacobs was ruled out for the rest of Iowa’s season by Ferentz due to a season-ending surgery. Ferentz didn’t specify the injury, but Jacobs did not return at Rutgers after Cooper DeJean’s 45-yard interception return. It appeared Jacobs pulled up awkwardly while setting some interference to clear the way for DeJean’s touchdown to lead Iowa’s 27-10 win.

Jacobs should have been starring at linebacker this year for the Hawkeyes. He was off to a roaring start with five tackles in the opener vs. South Dakota State before leaving with a second-quarter injury. He returned against Rutgers and had a thumping early tackle but got hurt on Rutgers’ second possession.

“It stinks. That’s the thing about injuries. I’m not sure anybody understands. If you’re a college football player, that’s important to you to play those 12 games,” Ferentz said. “… There’s nothing worse. And then you feel isolated. And then there’s a whole mental and psychological component that comes with being injured.”

Jacobs’ value would have been immense Oct. 22 at Ohio State, and it surely was a dream for him to play in Ohio Stadium as a native of Englewood, Ohio. He has the size (6-foot-4, 238 pounds) and speed to handle inside or outside linebacker; he can play the run effectively and cover running backs or tight ends on pass routes.

Short-term, Iowa can flex Seth Benson or Jack Campbell to outside linebacker if need be and insert Jay Higgins, who coaches love, at inside linebacker. Kyler Fisher and Logan Klemp have provided a few snaps of help without Jacobs, too.

Long-term, the possibility exists that Jacobs has played his last down of football for the Hawkeyes. When healthy, he was expected to have top-100 potential in the 2023 NFL Draft. Now he’ll have a decision to make after the season, depending on his recovery. He would absolutely qualify for a medical redshirt, so theoretically he could stay in college another two years if he desired. One silver-lining possibility for Jacobs and the Hawkeyes would be if he fully recovers and chooses to return for a fifth year; and with Campbell expected to move on, Jacobs could be the premier linebacker for the 2023 team.

Also on the injury front Tuesday, Ferentz wasn't sure if cornerback Terry Roberts could return after missing the Rutgers game.

Why Petras' highly rated performance could have been better

For those that watched the Fox Sports 1 broadcast, you may have noticed Petras demonstrably upset after one of the Hawkeyes’ best drives of the season — 12 plays, 87 yards just before the end of the first half at Rutgers. What was the normally calm-in-demeanor quarterback so mad about?

While his agitation was visible after a 5-yard scramble on third down that led to a field goal and 17-3 Iowa lead, Petras was upset about what he didn’t see the play before. On a second-and-9 from Rutgers’ 12-yard line, Petras threw a tight-window ball to tight end Sam LaPorta on the left side of the end zone. The ball fell incomplete on what was a well-contested catch. Petras, though, saw a missed opportunity as soon as he released the football.

“Gave (LaPorta) a chance, but I just missed Arland (Bruce IV) on that. Saw it after I threw it,” Petras said. “They cut him loose. I was (upset) about that. It was a look we weren’t really expecting, and I wasn’t expecting him to get cut loose. … A guy got wide open. It’s tough when you miss those.”

Red-zone touchdown conversions have been a sore spot for this team, so it’s understandable that Petras was hard on himself after that sequence. But Petras still had a positive game overall, going 11-for-17 for 148 yards with no turnovers. According to Pro Football Focus, he had the highest grade of any Hawkeye player at Rutgers. By contrast, he had the lowest grade on the team in Week 1 vs. South Dakota State.

Petras’ 8.71 yards per attempt at Rutgers was the second-highest average in his 23-start Iowa career (only 9.74 yards per attempt vs. Colorado State last year was higher). That counts as a sign of progress that Iowa needed to see at the quarterback position, which came under intense fire after a 10-7 loss in Week 2 vs. Iowa State.

"The last two weeks, we've seen more of what we think Spencer can do and can be," Ferentz said. "He's like everybody else. We're all trying to move as far down the road as we can, knowing it's going to be a tough challenge this week. We're trying to take a step forward each and every day. If we can do that, we might end up having a good football team."

Iowa freshman kicker says he's received tips from Keith Duncan, Nate Kaeding + more
Iowa freshman kicker Drew Stevens is 4-for-4 in two games as the team's starting placekicker.
Kennington Lloyd Smith III, Hawk Central

Keep an eye on the kicker in Iowa vs. Michigan

The placekicker has often held a notable spot in Iowa-Michigan history. Hawkeye die-hards could never forget Rob Houghtlin’s walk-off field goal vs. the Wolverines in a 1-vs-2 showdown, for a 12-10 win in 1985. Current Hawkeyes kicker Drew Stevens would not be born for another 18 years. But now the true freshman finds himself in a high-stakes college game as a kicker for the first time.

And should he need any advice, he knows who to call. Stevens, who hails from North Augusta, South Carolina, shares the same kicking coach as former Hawkeye all-American Keith Duncan. The last time Michigan came to Kinnick Stadium, Duncan’s 33-yard boot toward the South uprights at Kinnick Stadium delivered Iowa as a stunning walk-off winner, 14-13. Stevens is very familiar with Duncan, to the point where he said Tuesday, “We have the same baseline form.” If he has any questions, he can reach out to Duncan and know they're coming from the same place fundamentally.

When Stevens went back home after a shaky session of spring ball, Charlotte-based kicking coach Dan Orner made an adjustment with him. He had Stevens pull his left elbow toward his chest before kicks — a tactic Duncan used as well.

“It keeps your chest straight,” Stevens said. “And that was a big problem I had in spring ball.”

His results soared in fall camp. So, when Stevens lined up to try a 51-yard field goal at Rutgers, he made sure to keep that left elbow tucked. Orner also had reminded Stevens when he gets a rush of adrenaline, his kicks tend to drift left. So when Stevens kept his elbow tucked Saturday, it helped the kick go through the uprights — off the left post and in for a 27-10 Iowa lead. (Stevens is 4-for-4 on field goals and 6-for-6 on PATs since assuming the kicking job from Aaron Blom.)

“I went out there calm and composed. I had hit a 57- or 58-yarder in warmups, so I knew I could get it there easily,” Stevens said. “So, I kind of swung easy. It still went left of course, as you saw. But it went in.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.