Saturday, November 05, 2011

Michigan-Iowa: If it isn’t heaven, for Michigan, it’s Iowa

Until this season’s arrival of Nebraska, the westernmost locale for a Big Ten school was Iowa City, Iowa – home of lots of corn, farms with the appropriate-sized farm boys who got converted into tight ends and defensive linemen for the Hawkeyes.
For many reasons, it is a trip that very few squads look forward to making. Thus far in 2011, no one has beaten the Hawkeyes on their home turf – as if a different team dressed in black and gold appears than the players showing up for Iowa away from Kinnick Stadium. After all, this was allegedly the same team that LOST at Minnesota the week before.
Sadly, for Michigan, the home game version of Jekyll and Hyde appeared Saturday afternoon and left with a 24-16 victory over the 15th ranked Wolverines. In all honesty, it WAS Iowa who outplayed Michigan in most facets of the game as U-M had its worst overall performance of the season.
For Michigan, it was the third consecutive setback to Iowa and the second loss in the last three games of the 2011 season. The Wolverines have one final road trip to Illinois before hosting regular season games against Nebraska and Ohio State.
In the Legends Division, where apparently anything can happen, Iowa and Michigan are tied with 3-2 marks, behind Michigan State at 4-1 (but facing its own road excursions to Iowa City next week and Northwestern to end the year) and Nebraska, also at 3-2 (who would have thunk it, Northwestern winning in Lincoln, without QB Dan Persa).
The defeat damages Michigan’s chances of winning the division, but does not destroy it. As noted, Sparty must make its trip to Iowa City and the Wildcats have proven to be a tough nut to crack. The Huskers face Penn State, Michigan and Iowa and the Hawks have a road trip to Purdue at its sandwich game between MSU and Nebraska.
The less-than-inspired tone for Michigan was set on the opening exchange of possessions. The Wolverines did absolutely nothing (three-and-out) on its initial offensive drive while Iowa ran through the U-M defense like a John Deere through a field of maize for a 7-0 lead (which was never relinquished).
Mistakes, big and little, plagued Michigan all afternoon – from penalties prolonging Iowa drives, an interception that stopped drives (including one in the Iowa end zone at the end of the first half) dropped passes left and right and overthrows of open receivers by quarterback Denard Robinson, who camped out in the pocket as if he were on a fishing trip on the Cadillac River. For some reason (perhaps under orders), he did not take advantage of his natural weapon, his quick feet and explosive speed, to run to daylight when receivers were covered.
Only once did it work, on the first touchdown pass to Fitzgerald Toussaint from 5 yards away, but most of the game, it looked like missed opportunities, forcing the offense to face tougher conversion opportunities. If the Michigan offense operates properly, the ball isn’t in the air 39 times, as it was against Iowa, and it isn’t a constant barrage of deep routes trying to score all at once.
Too many times, Robinson seemed fixated with one receiver at a time, despite seeing nine difference receivers registered receptions. Roy Roundtree didn’t make a catch until the final 90 seconds of regulation and in that time span, he was the ONLY target. Missing are the screen passes to halfbacks, the tight end drag routes and the ball possession throws to wideouts that are easier to catch than 30-35 yard fly and post patterns too often being hurled.
And those who believed sophomore Devin Gardner was ready for prime time … uh, not yet. Although I’m just an armchair quarterback, I believe it’s time to stash the two-quarterback lineup because no defense feels threatened by Gardner under center.
While on the subject of offensive sets, I don’t understand why Michigan doesn’t operate more often in the old I-formation with Fitzgerald as the up back and sophomore Stephen Hopkins at the blocking fullback. It operated successfully for almost every play called for that; Hopkins opened good holes for a hard-running Fitzgerald (who did have 58 yards on 16 carries). But less successful were the single back sets, allowing the tough Iowa defensive line to key on the lone back…or Robinson.
As a result, Michigan only gained 127 yards on the ground and just at a 3.4 yard per carry clip. As the game wore down, the running game played less of a role; a bad sign for any team NOT designed to be a passing team. Michigan is neither at this stage – not a pound the ground offense nor an aerial attacker like Stanford.
Meanwhile, Iowa plowed through this contest like a steady tractor. Marcus Coker often bulled over the U-M defense for 132 yards on 29 carries and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Marvin McNutt kept using his superior size against outsized Michigan secondary personnel for a career-high nine receptions for 101 yards. Add no turnovers to the mix, and it spells a winning formula.
The Michigan defense had its moments, making two fourth-down stops and performing very well … at times. But there were plays where the Hawkeyes simply dissected its opposition and made things look too easy. On the road, the visitors must maintain its intensity almost every play or things, like Saturday’s outcome, happen.
As to the final drive, and the controversial touchdown that was disallowed for Michigan, my eyes saw Roundtree’s knee down in the zone and the ball in his possession. I saw no juggling or loss of possession.
But no one gets favorable calls on the road; you earn everything you get away from home. At no time, in the fourth quarter did I feel the Wolverines had a game-tying scoring drive in them. Things weren’t clicking and it was inevitable to come up a yard, and a touchdown, short.
Michigan’s final road trip is this Saturday and also fraught with as much danger as was the trip to Iowa. Illinois has been smarting from last season’s triple overtime Wolverine victory and possesses the same offensive mindset (and quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase, the team’s leading passer AND rusher – sound familiar?).
And … the Illini have had TWO weeks to prepare for Michigan, which is the same scenario the Wolverines faced at Michigan State. By the way, WHY does any Big Ten school get a bye week in November? When will the higher-ups even out the schedule and get it on a level playing (and scheduling) field?
The ability for Michigan to bounce back after a hard loss and do it on the road, where it has been next-to-impossible for the program to win in several years, must be established if measurable progress can be made in 2011.

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