By Tom Orr
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It’s all in how you look at it.
Michigan went into a hostile environment, missing its most dynamic players on both sides of the ball for most of the game, and pulled out its second straight dramatic win, to move within a game of being bowl-eligible.
Michigan also got out-gained on the ground and in the air for a second straight week, and won largely because the Hawkeyes shot themselves in the foot repeatedly with dropped passes and penalties.
It was a lot like the Ohio State-Michigan State game from a week ago; watching the tape after it was all over, for much of the game it was hard to imagine how the eventual loser possibly ended up coming up short.
In the end, Michigan is now above the even-water mark in conference play for the first time this year, and has just one more road game to go.
When Michigan had the ball: The big news before the game was that the Wolverines’ best lineman, RT Jake Long, was back in uniform and saw some action. Long had been out since August with an ankle injury. Once he’s able to play more extensively, it’s going to be a big shot in the arm for the offense, because the guys who have replaced him (Rueben Riley and Mike Koloziej) have not done a particularly good job.
The big news during the game was that Michael Hart got hurt… again. You probably remember that Hart missed a few games with a hamstring injury earlier this year. This week, he went out with an ankle injury on the Wolverines’ first drive of the game, and didn’t do much for the rest of the afternoon. The trainers wrapped his right ankle a couple times, but he looked like he was having a lot of trouble pushing off the foot, and slipped while making a cut. He sat out most of the game, finishing with just five carries for 17 yards, and one catch for 9 yards.
In his place, Michigan used a tag-team of freshman Kevin Grady (18 carries, 62 yards) and junior Jerome Jackson (11 carries, 44 yards). Grady hung onto the ball, but didn’t do anything too spectacular. However, his size allows him to grind down opposing defenses throughout the game and leave them tired and more vulnerable to big plays later. Jackson took advantage of that, coming in late and hitting a couple nice runs (including a 19-yarder) when Michigan finally started moving the ball. He also scored the winning touchdown in overtime.
Sophomore Max Martin carried it once, and put it on the ground. The ball clearly appeared to be out, but the officials ruled him down. He did not run it again, and based on what happened Saturday he is clearly behind Hart, Grady and Jackson on the depth chart at this point.
The offensive line did not have the dominating game that they probably should have. Iowa’s undersized defensive line was able to tie up Michigan’s line, leaving the Hawks’ much-heralded linebackers free to roam most of the afternoon. Abdul Hodge finished with 20 tackles and Chad Greenway ended the day with 16.
The line really didn’t open too many gaping holes—they averaged just a hair under three yards per carry on the ground, and a lot of Grady’s gains came from using his bulk to push piles. That’s even more remarkable considering that UM’s offensive linemen outweighed the Hawkeyes’ front by about 50 pounds per man. They eventually seemed to start wearing on the defense, but it took quite a while. If Long can come back to anything like his old form, this unit will definitely improve, but right now it’s not a dominating line by any means.
LG Leo Henige went down with an injury late in the game, and redshirt freshman Alex Mitchell stepped in for him. However, Henige returned to action, so it appears it wasn’t a serious problem.
Chad Henne put together a statistically decent day. He started slowly, but finished 14-for-21 for 207 yards, 2 touchdowns and an interception. The pick was apparently not his fault; freshman WR Mario Manningham was streaking down the field, and supposed to cut in front of the safeties. He didn’t, so Henne’s pass went straight to a Hawkeye. He got away with one in the first half, when a Hawkeye DB seemed to have position on a short pass to Doug Dutch. Dutch appeared to drag the DB down to prevent an interception, but it was Iowa that got called for pass interference. Henne’s accuracy wasn’t always great, but his receivers (one in particular) made him look good.
Half of Henne’s completions went to one guy, WR Jason Avant. He reeled in seven passes for 105 yards and a score. A few of those catches were remarkable—none more so than one in overtime. Avant was crossing from the left side of the field to the right, Henne threw the ball behind him and Avant left his feet, twisted around his entire body in the air and caught it. It was a move straight out of The Matrix.
Part of Avant’s big day was his ability to find open windows in the Hawkeyes’ zone coverages. He’s not a deep threat, but can kill you nonetheless.
WR Steve Breaston caught only two passes all day, but one was arguably the biggest play of the afternoon. He took a “long handoff”, made one guy miss and took it 52 yards for a go-ahead touchdown with 8:51 left. He’s dangerous and he’s slippery, and if you miss a tackle, he can make you pay.
Manningham, the star of last weekend’s thriller, was pretty much a non-factor. He caught one pass for 15 yards, and drew the most notice for screwing up the one route that ended with the interception. He’s supposedly hobbled by some kind of minor injury (Michigan hasn’t said anything specific about the nature or exact severity of the issue).
WR Antonio Bass made another cameo at quarterback. He carried it twice for not-much, and coughed the ball up once. The replay appeared to show the ball coming out after his arm hit the ground, but the officials ruled it a fumble.
Bass also threw the ball for the first time, rolling left and hitting Jason Avant (who made another spectacular grab) for 13 yards. Bass was a quarterback in high school, so he can throw it. He’s also a lefty, so he can get off a better throw rolling left (the opposite of which is true for Henne).
When Iowa had the ball: Michigan’s defense was handcuffed by a key injury as well. DE LaMarr Woodley missed almost the entire game because of a deep bruise on his forearm. Woodley has been one of the few standouts on the defense, and his absence may go at least part of the way toward explaining what happened to this unit on Saturday.
Like many of Michigan’s opponents, the Hawkeyes got off to a fast start. They opened with a nine-play, 85 yard drive for a touchdown. This has been documented before in this space, but Michigan’s defense is generally atrocious on their first drive of the game.
On Saturday, they were pretty lousy for the entire first half, and some crucial mistakes by the Hawkeyes were the only thing that kept them from falling way behind.
As mentioned, Iowa’s first drive went 85 yards in nine plays for a touchdown.
They were moving the ball again on their second drive (two carries, 28 yards) when they got called for an unnecessary block-in-the-back penalty that killed the drive.
Breaston muffed the ensuing punt, and Iowa recovered the ball at the Michigan 11, but the officials called a questionable kick-catch interference penalty (more on that later), that gave the ball back to Michigan.
The third drive went 80 yards in 12 plays and ended with another touchdown. At this point, Iowa had amassed 200 yards on 26 plays and the second quarter wasn’t even seven minutes old.
On the fourth drive, the officials let Leon Hall get away with a borderline case of pass interference on 2nd-and-20, and the Hawkeyes ended up punting. This is only worth noting because Michigan benefited from two similar (and possibly less-flagrant) pass interference calls on earlier drives.
On the fifth drive, a wide-open Iowa receiver dropped a pass on 3rd-and-2, killing a drive at the Michigan 41. Had he caught it, the Hawkeyes would have had a first down close to, if not in field goal range.
Ferentz elected to punt the ball away at that point, and also decided not to try a Hail Mary from near midfield on the final play of the half.
Sometimes a solid defensive effort can force an offense to make mistakes. But in this case, the Hawks simply killed themselves with unnecessary penalties and dropped passes.
The biggest problem for Michigan in the first half was their complete inability to tackle RB Albert Young. Buckeye fans probably don’t remember him, because he carried it only 10 times for 25 yards in Columbus, including a long run of 6. This weekend, he sliced through Michigan like a hot knife through a lousy defense.
Here’s a list of the yardage on his carries throughout the first half: 1, 6, 7, 15, 6, 11, 17, 9, 4, 6, 4, and 9. I’ll do the math: 12 carries for 95 yards (7.9 yards per carry). In the first 30 minutes alone, he had six rushes of more than six yards—he didn’t do that once in Columbus.
On almost all of those carries, Young broke a tackle at the line and turned it into a nice run. Michigan’s tackling (particularly from the safeties and corners) has been really, really bad this year.
In the second half, Michigan made one key lineup change that improved things dramatically. LB John Thompson replaced Chris Graham and Young stopped breaking so many tackles.
His second half carries: (3, -2, 0, 5, 4, 2, -2, 7, 9, 3, 2, 9, 5, 8, 6, 2, -2, 1, 1) were respectable—18 rushes for 58 yards, pretty similar to Grady’s numbers on the other side of the ball—but they weren’t even close to the first 30 minutes.
Thompson and fellow LB David Harris started making sure tackles, not letting Young get downfield on most carries. After gaining at least four yards on 11 of his first 12 carries, Young only gained four or more eight of the last 18 times he carried the ball. That’s not terrible, but it’s not even close to his first half pace.
It seemed like almost every play, Thompson was either on the pile, helping to make a tackle or close to the ball. If Thompson can play like he did in the second half for the rest of the season, Michigan’s defense will be much more respectable against the run. Harris has been solid all year.
All day long, the running game opened up play-action passing for the Hawkeyes. Tate finished 27-for-39 for 288 yards, two scores and a pick. That interception was another example of Iowa shooting itself in the foot.
It came on the opening possession of the third quarter. Tate hit a wide-open Clinton Solomon right in the hands near midfield, but the ball bounced off of him, directly to Michigan safety Brandon Harrison, who gratefully accepted the gift. This gave Michigan a short field to work with—they ended up kicking a field goal.
On the next drive, Iowa settled for a field goal try, which got blocked.
Later in the fourth quarter (after Bass’ pseudo-fumble), a holding penalty pushed the Hawkeyes back, and Tate took a dumb sack to drive them out of field goal range.
The next drive, Tate dropped a snap on third down near midfield, killing another scoring chance.
Michigan spent most of the day living on the edge, but thanks to a couple big plays on their end and some timely mistakes from the Hawkeyes, they never plummeted over the edge.
Iowa TE Scott Chandler had a big day, mostly working against Prescott Burgess. Chandler finished with eight catches for a team-high 90 yards.
DE Pierre Woods and Tim Jamison both played respectably while filling in for Woodley. Neither one brings Woodley’s level of dynamic play-making off the edge (Jamison is still a little dinged with a leg injury), but Woods had four tackles and a sack and Jamison had a sack and forced a fumble.
In the middle of the line, DT (and captain) Pat Massey must be close to an NCAA record for most consecutive starts without being mentioned by the announcers after the lineup introductions. He was credited with two solo tackles and two assists, but has been more or less invisible this year.
One-time starter Brandent Englemon saw a little action early in the game at safety, but missed at least one tackle, and left. He’s had shoulder issues and it looks like they might still be affecting him.
The defensive backfield remains shaky, especially at the safety positions. Michigan did not give up any monster plays, but did get thumped for 10-15 yards with disturbing regularity.
It will definitely help if Woodley is back next week, but that Northwestern spread offense should be a real test for the young safeties.
Michigan’s special teams: Garret Rivas hit his kicks, the coverage units did a pretty good job, and they even blocked a field goal.
The only problems came on their returns. Iowa covered their kickoffs very well, limiting Breaston to just 15 yards on each of his two returns. In addition, one of his punt returns was a near-disaster.
Breaston waved for a fair catch as he was waiting for a punt to come down around his own 20. He started drifting to his right (either because of wind or he simply misjudged it) as an Iowa gunner raced down the field. The gunner got very close, but managed to avoid touching Breaston, jumping around him (the replays clearly showed that there was no contact). Breaston continued drifting right, and tried to catch the punt off to his side, but muffed it. Iowa recovered at the Michigan 12.
The officials ruled that the Iowa gunner had interfered with Breaston, specifically mentioning “contact with the receiver” in the explanation. However, there was no contact, and the old “halo” rule is no longer in effect.
The NCAA rulebook (Rule 6, Section 4, Article 1C) says “it is an interference foul if the kicking team contacts the potential receiver before, or simultaneous to, his first touching the ball.” (Emphasis added) It’s on page 86 if you care to read it for yourself.
Before anyone goes nuts, spewing about conspiracies like they’re a Penn State fan, the rule specifies that if the call is in doubt, the officials should call it interference. That at least offers some justification, but the bottom line is that the officials blew the call.
That gave the ball to Michigan, instead of Iowa getting it inside the Michigan 15. The very next play, Martin fumbled and Iowa recovered again, but the officials ruled (incorrectly again) that he was down. Those calls had a huge impact on the game. However, it’s not a conspiracy, it’s just bad officiating.
What does it all mean? For one thing, Michigan now needs to win only one of their last three games to earn a bowl bid. With a home date against Indiana looming in a few weeks, it looks like their streak of 30 consecutive seasons with a bowl game will remain intact.
This team gutted out a road win in a very tough place to play (they snapped Iowa’s 22-game home win streak) without two of their most important players. That’s impressive no matter how you get it done.
Next weekend against Northwestern, this defense will get a real test. The Wildcats’ spread offense will test the tackling abilities of Michigan’s defensive backs, and as mentioned earlier, that hasn’t been a real strong suit. Don’t be surprised if Tyrell Sutton goes off for a big day. Michigan needs Thompson and Harris to play extremely well to hold Sutton in check.
On the other side of the ball, Hart’s ankle injury is reportedly not all that serious. Of course, they said the same thing about his hamstring earlier this year, and he sat out a couple weeks because of it. Michigan needs to get him back, and may need to get a full game out of Long to keep up with the ‘Cats.
On top of the X and O issues, the game is being played at night. As Buckeye fans know all too well, that is never easy.
After that, the schedule before The Game is as favorable as possible. The Wolverines get a week off to rest and heal up, then a home date with one of the Big Ten’s weak links, before the Buckeyes come to town.
The road to the big one
Sept. 3: Michigan 33, Northern Illinois 17
Sept. 10: Notre Dame 17, Michigan 10
Sept. 17: Michigan 55, Eastern Michigan 0
Sept. 24: Wisconsin 23, Michigan 20
Oct. 1: Michigan 34, Michigan State 31 (OT)
Oct. 8: Minnesota 23, Michigan 20
Oct. 15: Michigan 27, Penn State 25
Oct. 22: Michigan 23, Iowa 20 (OT)
Oct. 29: @ Northwestern
Nov. 5: Idle
Nov. 12: Indiana
Nov. 19: Ohio State
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