College Football

No. 16 Iowa embraces underdog role as it takes on No. 2 Michigan in Big Ten title game

This is the final meeting of the Big Ten division champs for the conference title. Divisional play is being scrapped next season when four Pac-12 teams join the league

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Iowa defensive end Joe Evans spent six years defying the odds.

After one season as a walk-on linebacker, he switched positions, earned a scholarship in 2020, shared the team lead for sacks in 2021 and 2022, returned this year as a team captain, and wound up earning third-team all-conference honors.

It's been quite a ride for the Hawkeyes' vocal leader, and Evans believes he can help No. 16 Iowa exceed expectations once more on Saturday when his team plays No. 2 Michigan for the Big Ten championship.

“We love that narrative of being the underdog,” Evans said. “I don't think anybody thought we were going to be in this situation after we lost 31-0 at Penn State. I said, ‘You know, we still have all of our goals in front of us. We can still win the Big Ten West and we can win the Big Ten championship.’ I know a lot of people kind of laughed at that, so we love being the underdog.”

The Hawkeyes (10-2, No. 16 CFP) certainly fit the model this week, winning the Big Ten West despite losing their starting quarterback against Penn State, changing kickers in their regular-season finale, and being unable to top the 20-point mark six times in their final eight games.

Michigan (12-0, No. 2 CFP), on the other hand, looks virtually unbeatable.

Two weeks after celebrating the program's 1,000th win and one week after beating rival Ohio State for the third straight time, the Wolverines are chasing a school first -- their third straight outright league title -- and a second straight playoff bid.

How good are the Wolverines? They've won a school-record 24 consecutive conference games, lead the nation in scoring defense (10.3) and have J.J. McCarthy and Blake Corum, the Big Ten's quarterback and running back of the year.

The result: Michigan enters the game in Indianapolis as a 22 1/2-point favorite in a contest where the over-under is 34 1/2 points, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

Still, the Wolverines will take nothing for granted, even as coach Jim Harbaugh returns to the sideline following his second three-game suspension of this season, this one for allegedly stealing signs.

“It gets the hair sticking up on my arms, gets me ready to run through a wall,” Corum said, referring to Harbaugh's presence. “I’ve definitely missed hearing that.”

Two years ago, the Hawkeyes faced a similar predicament when they last met the heavily favored Wolverines in Indianapolis. Michigan won that title game 42-3, and Evans hasn't forgotten anything about that game.

It's an experience he and his teammates don't want to relive this weekend, even if nobody else believes in the Hawkeyes.

“We all remember at the facility how much we lost that game by,” Evans said. “Being the captain, it's my duty and my job to let the guys know what that felt like, coming off the field losing by 39 points. And another thing is to make sure the guys understand we're there to win a football game.”

Last season, an injured Corum watched the Wolverines capture the league crown from a California hotel room following knee surgery. This year, he'll play a key role, and Corum can't wait.

“I wanted to be there so bad, but everything happens for a reason, and look at me now,” the senior said.

Corum leads the FBS with a single-season school record of 22 rushing TDs, and his 53 career scoring runs are two short of Anthony Thomas' school record (1997-2000).

Two years ago, Cade McNamara led Michigan to its first Big Ten title since 2004. On Saturday, he'll be watching from the other sideline as part of the Hawkeyes.

McNamara transferred after McCarthy took over as the Wolverines' starter last season. But the Iowa quarterback suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5. Former Wisconsin quarterback Deacon Hill replaced McNamara, who has some inside information about his former team -- even if coach Kirk Ferentz won't listen.

“I don't even want to know because all it does is clutter your mind,” Ferentz said. “All that does is screw up my thought process. Quite frankly, I'd rather just look at the film.”

Michigan will be missing one key player, all-conference guard Zak Zinter, who had surgery last Saturday after breaking his leg in two places against Ohio State. Trente Jones is expected to replace Zinter. Jones made nine starts in five seasons as an extra offensive lineman.

“What an opportunity for Trente to show what he can do,” Harbaugh said.

This is the final meeting of the Big Ten division champs for the conference title. Divisional play is being scrapped next season when four Pac-12 teams join the league, and the top two teams will meet in the championship.

Wisconsin won the first two games, representing the Leaders Division, and Michigan State gave the Legends Division its first title in 2013. If Michigan wins Saturday, the East Division champ will be 10-0 since the conference went to its current East-West format.

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