Sunday, November 24, 2013

Michigan-Iowa: Iowa City freeze-out

Among our panel of Mgotalk analysts, when pondering Saturday’s game at Iowa, someone said, “I think we’ve turned the corner,” in predicting victory.
Yes, Michigan turned the corner in the second half at frozen Kinnick Stadium, and promptly got mugged by the Hawkeye defense.
The inept U-M offense could but garner a meager 158 yards in total offense (407 for Iowa), forcing its defensive cohorts to spend far too much time chasing Iowa’s runners and receivers until expending all their energy by surrendering a 14-point half-time advantage into a 24-21 setback.
The loss means Michigan will have a losing conference record, will NOT go to any kind of decent bowl game, and faces the prospect of getting its ass handed to it by its bitter rival, Ohio State, at home in the final (Thank God) regular season game of 2013.
Again, the fault for the defeat sits at the feet of quarterback Devin Gardner, outplayed by his Iowa counterpart, Jake Rudock, at the meaningful moments, despite Rudock surrendering three interceptions. Iowa went 10-for-12 in passing in the second half for 133 yards while Michigan was a woeful 5-for-12 for 36 yards.
The rushing numbers for the final two quarters were even worse (of that is possible). Iowa toted the mail 26 times for 90 yards while U-M ran 11 times for just 9 freaking yards.
Hell, in the second half, the deepest U-M penetration was the Iowa 31 where Gardner was stripped (too easily) of the pigskin in the final 2:30. Once Iowa secured a pair of first downs, the game was over and the only consolation for the Wolverines was getting the hell out of Dodge before the temperatures dropped to single digits.
The collapse ruined two of the best individual defensive performances by juniors Jake Ryan (who should have been charged with terrorism for what he was doing to Rudock and other Hawkeyes) and Frank Clark, who has blossomed into the best U-M lineman out of the carousel of bodies used up front. But it was obviously a case of a worn-out unit in the second half because the inability of the offense to stay ON the field again proved to be lethal.
By the way, the weather, the coldest for a Hawkeye game in school history, was a factor on both sides – the wind determined more of the outcome than the actual cold. But Iowa adjusted by simply pounding the ball 44 times at the Wolverine front line, compare to 29 weak attempts by U-M.
The conditions were a surprise to absolutely no one; a glance at any Iowa City news website forecast exactly what the players and coaches saw and felt … a week in advance. Some players adjusted and some, like receiver Devon Funchess, seemed to have trouble catching any pass thrown near him.
Fans would love an explanation as to how Michigan squandered a 14-point halftime lead with such ease. Well, just look at the stats from the game (in this case revealing plenty):
Rushing attack – No Wolverine running back gained more than 9 yards on any one carry, with the exception of Funchess’ 10-yard reverse. Whoop-de-doo! Quarterback Devon Gardner finished with only 12 net yards on 10 rushes and lost 21 yards within those 10 attempts.
Fitzgerald Toussaint continued his “dancing with the defensive linemen” style of running for a thundering 12 yards on 6 carries. Freshman De’Veon Smith never set foot on the field while fullback Joe Kerrigan was actually seen running with Gardner on a sprint option, carrying the payload for three yards – which laughingly turned out to be the best average on the day for the backfield personnel.
A question: why was Kerrigan used as the trail back on a third-down option call to the short side of the field (with no room to turn up field for the slowest back on the roster? And why does it seem most of the option calls go to the area of least territory?
For the season, Michigan is only averaging 3.2 yards per carry, which means if the offense calls for three running plays, a punt follows automatically. That’s no way to operate – even for a high school junior varsity.
I know it’s easy (too easy) to blame everything on a youthful offensive line that keeps getting juggled like Yahtzee dice. But on this vehicle, everything is malfunctioning and it gets a tad old to see the same thing being played out each down, each series … each game.
Third downs – Again, for the fourth game in a row, this vital aspect of offense was miserable; Michigan converted just 4 of 14 third-down plays (three of them coming in the only quarter when U-M dominated, the second). To be fair, and to show how hard the Wolverine defense battled, Iowa only converted 4 of 15 opportunities).
For the season, U-M converts only 38 percent (same as its opponents) on third downs with seven less successful plays.
Passing yards – I wrote it earlier but it bears repeating – Iowa went 10-for-12 in passing in the second half for 133 yards while Gardner was a woeful 5-for-12 for 36 yards. He threw for less than 100 yards on the game, missing more passes than he completed.
Sorry to state this, but it is more apparent each week: Gardner has plenty of talent, but he is no better than the lowest three quarterbacks in the conference (based on actual performance). Purdue, Illinois and Michigan have gotten the worst results from its “leader” than anyone in the Big 10.
Punting – Michigan was forced to punt 10 times (a season high) and averaged just over 35 yards per punt. Whether the wind accounted for some of Matt Wile’s poorer attempts can’t be determined since he kicked an equal amount of punts between the two halves (into the wind and with the stiff breeze helping him).
Key turnovers – This Michigan team is not in a position where it can afford ANY turnovers at any moment of the game. Iowa had surrendered the ball four times but led 24-21 when Gardner was stripped of the ball on U-M’s final drive, you knew it was “game over.”
And if I told you Michigan was a plus-four in terms of takeaways this season, you’d swear I was mainlining bottles of Glenlivet. But if a team cannot capitalize on those gifts, the result is what is happening each week.
Looking at what the U-M offense does immediately after the defense garners a turnover is quite telling. In Michigan’s two regulation Big 10 victories, the Wolverines scored touchdowns on four opposition turnovers (in the Northwestern victory, the only Wildcat miscue was on the final play of the game – an interception by Thomas Gordon).
But in the losses, it is just the reverse. Against Michigan State, Ramon Taylor’s interception was followed by a three-play drive which lost 21 yards. In the Nebraska game, two fumbles were followed by drives of minus-2 and 3 yards (going 1 for 2 on field goals).
At Penn State, four turnovers produced one touchdown drive of 19 yards, a made field goal (19-yard drive) a miss chip shot from 33 yards in overtime and a Gardner interception.
In the Iowa game, only two of the turnovers allowed the offense to take a snap; the results were the 28-yard touchdown drive (a pass to TE A.J. Williams) and a punt after losing a yard in four plays.
The point being made here is how little Michigan accomplishes following what should be major momentum changers.
Drive killers – Much has been made of the yardage lost by Michigan this season (especially by Gardner) and the numbers are startling; opponents have recorded 32 tackles for losses for a total of 244 yards while Michigan has made 21 stops for 159 yards lost.
But more than the actual lost ground (an 83-yard difference), most of those 32 plays were drive killers because they normally interrupted any iota of momentum U-M might have had at the time. A team can survive a few self-inflicted wounds but, at some point, the patient has be pronounced as … lifeless.
Let’s admit something – Michigan SHOULD be a sub-.500 team; the Wolverines honestly did NOT deserve to beat Akron, UConn OR Northwestern. At least they didn’t fall to Georgia Southern like some SEC team whose roster was stocked with players recruited by a certain coach (who shall be nameless) who escaped Tallahassee for more friendly … urban … confines in Columbus.
Frankly, this coming Saturday, I cannot script a scenario where 1) Michigan emerges victorious against a much better undefeated (and yet-to-be seriously challenged) Ohio State squad; and 2) where Michigan actually scores on the Buckeye defense. There is no mystery on how to defend the Wolverine non-offense; it’s a simple matter of pressure on the offensive line and Gardner – neither of whom has proven to be consistent since Big 10 play began.
And there is no proof that a worn-out defense will be able to stop Braxton Miller or Carlos Hyde. Inspired by the real possibility of gaining a spot in the BCS championship game, Ohio State will not be allowed by its head coach to ease off the pedal until the buses head southbound to that state down south.
It’s going be ugly; it’s going to be on national television and only the pride and history of one team, (Michigan) will keep it from becoming a complete embarrassment. It’s no substitute in the end for a competent offense.
My prediction won’t change from 28-0 Ohio State and it pains me to write that. But truth is truth and unless the ghost of Jim Mandich fills every Michigan player with the spirit of 1969, it will be a long afternoon.
Allegedly, in 1969, after Bo’s impassioned pre-game speech, the team tried to run out of the locker room, only to be halted by a balky door, stuck in the closed mode. Mandich, one of the greatest team captains in U-M history, took things into his own hands, ripping the door off its hinges and jumped into the top of the tunnel with a manic visage (all in front of the startled Buckeyes as they left their area, just a couple of feet across the way).
Apparently, there are no such doormen on Team 134; God help the boys on Saturday.

No comments: