Michigan Monday - Iowa
By Tony Gerdeman
Losing to Iowa is never easy. It's like death by a thousand gummings. The Hawkeyes do nothing special. You know what you're going to get, and they're not even that good at what they do.
Yet at the end of the day on Saturday, there they were, sloppily and suckingly gumming past Michigan's femoral artery on their way to a 24-16 win over the Wolverines in Iowa City.
When you play Iowa and the talent level is similar, you almost have to be complicit as an opponent to allow them to beat you. It's like playing Monopoly against somebody who never buys properties - they just wait for you to go broke building hotels.
The Hawkeyes got out to a 17-6 lead in the first half thanks to two Denard Robinson turnovers and then gummed their way through the second half waiting for the clock to run out.
But that's not the entire story. There was also the matter of a potentially (eventually) game-tying touchdown in the waning moments of the game that may or may not have actually happened.
Down 24-16 with 16 seconds to play, the Wolverines had first and goal from the Hawkeye three-yard line. After a terrible throw and incompletion on first down, Robinson made another terrible throw on second down that Junior Hemingway made a tremendous play on and nearly came up with the touchdown catch. It was so close, in fact, that they had to review it. Hemingway appeared to have control, but the nose of the ball hit the ground as he was falling to the ground.
A few weeks ago against Northwestern, Michigan linebacker Brandin Hawthorne made a diving interception that had to be reviewed. During the replay, the ball was shown clearly hitting the ground while in Hawthorne's grasp. Even though the ball was moving slightly, after replay, Hawthorne's interception was confirmed. In that week's Michigan Monday, I wrote the following:
They gave him the pick, but replays showed that while he had two hands on the ball, the nose of the ball hit the ground and then moved in Hawthorne's grasp. The rule book states that the ball can hit the ground as long as the player has a firm grasp on the ball. The ball never left his grasp, but it certainly re-situated itself. You know how you can re-situate yourself on the couch without ever leaving the couch's grasp? That's what the football did.
The play was reviewed and confirmed as an interception. Now everybody in Michigan has a new baseline for what they consider a firm grasp.
I think that's what we saw on Saturday as Michigan's sideline was in disbelief at the call, as was their fanbase.
Hemingway's "catch" was very similar to Hawthorne's on Saturday, but the officials didn't see it that way. While I'm of the opinion that both were incompletions, I definitely see a distinction between the two. For one, Hemingway caught the ball with his wrists as much as he did his hands, which makes the ball less likely to be secured. For two, there's no way to tell if the ball moved, so there's no way to tell if he had a firm grasp, which is a prerequisite to giving the receiver a catch when the ball touches the ground.
The play was called an incompletion on the field, and after replay, the play stood, but wasn't confirmed. Still, a good throw was all it would have taken, and it didn't happen.
On third down a blitz came through clean and Robinson had to scramble. He found Vincent Smith in the endzone, but he dropped the pass. Then, with two seconds remaining, on fourth down, Robinson tried to hit Roy Roundtree on a slant, but the pass was broken up.
The fourth down was controversial, however, because there was clearly some questionable defense on the play. A flag for pass interference could have easily been thrown, but it was also the same type of defense that you see throughout an entire game when cornerbacks are playing right up on receivers.
I don't have a huge problem with calling penalties by the letter of the law, but if we're going to do that then we're also going to have to call Junior Hemingway for offensive pass interference on second down when he discarded his defender and tried to catch Robinson's errant pass.
The bottom line is that the Wolverines had four shots from the three-yard line and couldn't punch it in. Their skill players let them down. Robinson let the team down with his inaccuracy. Vincent Smith let his team down by dropping the pass on third down. Roy Roundtree let his team down by not fighting through an aggressive man-to-man defense.
Another point of controversy that I heard this weekend was about the lack of running on the final four snaps. I didn't have a problem with the playcalling simply because Michigan had no timeouts and giving Robinson a run-pass option on the first three downs takes time off the clock and potentially gets him tackled in the field of play. At least with dropping back four times, he can get rid of the ball quickly. Though, on his first two pass attempts, he admittedly got rid of the ball way too quickly. I maybe would have preferred a quarterback run on fourth down, but not before.
When Michigan Was Offense
Throughout most of the season - and I'll apologize ahead of time for not keeping closer track of late - the Wolverines ran their offense out of the shotgun around 70% of the time. On Saturday they were actually under center more than they were in the shotgun. At least they were until the fourth quarter when they were down 24-9 and had to actually move the ball.
Denard Robinson took 27 snaps in the fourth quarter and 26 were out of the shotgun. It was telling that when Michigan absolutely had to move the ball, they did it out of the shotgun. Over the first three quarters, Michigan had compiled just 171 yards of total offense, but in a fourth quarter fueled by need and the shotgun, Robinson and the Wolverines put up 152 yards in just 6:17 of possession time.
As you would expect, most of those fourth quarter yards came through the air. Michigan just could never get their running game going. They had a couple of flashes, but nothing ever caught fire. The Wolverines rushed for just 127 yards which was their third lowest output of the season (Michigan State and Notre Dame).
One week after running for a career high of 170 yards, tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint was held to just 58 yards rushing on 16 carries. His long rush was only eleven yards, which speaks to Iowa's discipline in protecting the cutback, which Toussaint is very good at.
Robinson only managed 55 yards on twelve carries, and lost 18 yards throughout the day via sacks and other things. As an aside, what's up with Robinson constantly slipping and sliding down? He's tackling himself as much as the defenses are. If he could actually stay on his feet, maybe he could make a few more plays.
Robinson rushed for an average of 138 yards per game in Michigan's four non-conference games. In Big Ten play, he's only rushing for 65.6 yards per game.
It seems like the more Al Borges finds out what Robinson can do, the more determined he is to not let him do it. Robinson under center is fine if you've got a running game that can support him, but when he's 42% of your running game, you can't expect him to pick up the slack via the scramble.
From the shotgun, he still has the appearance of being a running threat. I'm guessing there isn't a defense left on Michigan's schedule that wouldn't prefer to see Robinson under center more than out of the shotgun.
Ohio State's running backs coach Dick Tressel said a year or so ago about Terrelle Pryor that they liked him under center because the defense couldn't account for him as a running threat in that situation. If that's what Borges has in mind, I'd have no problem with it, but it's not.
The read option was going strong for a few weeks, then stopped going anywhere altogether. There was the speed option that was also effective, and even some triple option. Now Michigan is suddenly running Wisconsin's offense half of the time, and they're not running it very well.
There's also the continued deployment of Devin Gardner, who finished 1-1 passing for two yards, and had five carries for zero yards. To be fair, he actually had to step in for a series for an injured Robinson, who appeared to injure his throwing hand.
When Gardner comes in with Robinson in the slot, I still claim that it has nothing to do with Gardner and everything to do with using Robinson as a decoy, which speaks to the fact that Borges can't figure out a way to make Robinson a decoy at quarterback.
That's as much on Robinson as it is Borges. I thought one of the best comments on the situation came from Chris Spielman, who said during the game that Borges is turning Robinson into a game manager instead of the game breaker he's always been. It's a comment that I'm sure most Michigan fans would agree with, especially after seeing the way Robinson blossomed last season.
Don't worry Michigan fans, Robinson will run everything he used to run effectively when Ohio State comes to town. No doubt the coaches saw what Tre Roberson did to the Buckeye defense and they will devise a similar plan of attack.
Robinson threw the ball less than well. He was 17-37 for 194 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He was erratic down the field, and wasn't much better in the short passing game. His receivers did him zero favors, as they dropped five or six passes. It's still a work in progress every time Robinson leans back and lets one fly down field. He has now thrown twelve interceptions on the season - he threw eleven all of last year.
Lastly, I would like to ask if Michigan's offense has anything new? Is this it? For a while we'd see something new each week. We haven't seen much new in a while. Is this all there is?
When Michigan Was On Defense
Iowa running back Marcus Coker carried the ball 29 times for 132 yards. While the Wolverines did a respectable job against him, his number of carries indicates that they didn't do enough.
I actually think the defensive line did enough of their job to limit the running game, but the linebackers let the team down. Weakside linebacker Desmond Morgan and middle linebacker Kenny Demens pick gaps like rubes pick Three Card Monte--"Ummmm...let's try this one!"
Morgan is just a freshman, as I say every week, and he's got some upside, but right now, he's a catch and ride linebacker. He'll catch the ball carrier three yards downfield and ride him for three more. He rarely makes a play at the line of scrimmage--though he did make one against Iowa. It's just not something he can be expected to do consistently yet.
Demens can stone any running back in the nation, provided he somehow meets up in the same hole as that running back. Too often on his way to a gap, however, he sticks to a blocker like a close talker having a long conversation.
Right now, Michigan's linebackers have promise, but they are overwhelmingly blockable.
Iowa also got some mismatches with receivers on linebackers during their first possession, which not coincidentally was a touchdown drive. Michigan's linebackers can't cover anybody, but no linebacker is going to be able to match up with the likes of Keenan Davis and Marvin McNutt.
One day Michigan will get some linebackers who can defend the pass, but when they do, they're still going to need safety help on mismatches like we saw on Saturday. Fortunately for the Wolverines, the Hawkeyes didn't seek out those mismatches very often.
Iowa only threw for 171 yards, but quarterback James Vandenberg did complete 14-21 passes.
Michigan also ran some 5-2 fronts in an attempt to stop the Hawkeyes power running game. They will likely do some of the same against Ohio State in a few weeks.
Ryan Van Bergen and Mike Martin are one of the better defensive line duos in the conference, but they can only do so much. Fortunately they got a bit of help from Craig Roh and Will Heininger this week, as each recorded a sack in the game. Heininger is a poor man's Van Bergen, which last year would have been an insult, but this year is actually a complement.
I continue to be impressed by freshman cornerback Blake Countess. He gives up a few catches here and there, but he's always near the play. He finished with six tackles against Iowa and doesn't appear to be timid in any facet. I don't think it's a stretch at all to call him the team's best corner by a considerable margin.
Jordan Kovacs returned at safety this week, which meant that since Troy Woolfolk is also now at safety, Thomas Gordon was relegated to the bench. Gordon came into the game second on the team in tackles, averaging 6.5 per game. He never saw the field on defense, however, which was a bit of a surprise.
While this defense has its weakness, it also has its strengths. Michigan is 7-2 on the season and the defense has played well enough to win all nine times this season.
Michigan's defense has given up 30 points in a game just once through the first nine games this season (a 35-31 win over Notre Dame). That's the best mark since the 2006 defense, which had the likes of David Harris and Shawn Crable running around it.
There is still a long way to go, but it's pretty clear that once the talent catches up to the coaching, Michigan will have some defenses to contend with.
The Special Teams
Michigan's special teams got off to a rough start after their first touchdown when receiver Drew Dileo, who is also the holder, fumbled the snap on the extra point and the Wolverines couldn't convert their point after touchdown.
Will Hagerup is still struggling with his punting. He averaged 39.4 yards per punt, but didn't put any of his kicks inside the Iowa 20-yard line.
Martavious Odoms averaged 23 yards per kickoff return. He can find a lane here and there, but doesn't necessarily have the speed to exploit it for a touchdown.
The Wolverines covered kickoffs well, allowing Iowa just 56 yards on three returns. They did have a pair of 14-yard punt returns however.
It's hard to call Michigan's special teams a unit of strength just yet.
What Does It All Mean
It means that with the loss to Iowa, the dream of an Ohio State - Michigan game with the winner gaining a berth into the Big Ten Championship Game is growing dimmer.
The Wolverines have now lost to division rivals Michigan State and Iowa. Even if they win out, Michigan would still need Michigan State to lose two more times and Iowa to lose once. It's certainly possible--Michigan State still has to travel to Iowa and Northwestern, and Iowa still has to go to Nebraska--but that's a lot of ifs at the moment.
Winning out certainly seems daunting. For some reason, however, I'm pretty confident in a Michigan win over Illinois right now. I can't imagine a bye week for Ron Zook is actually a good thing for the Illini.
There are no great teams in the Big Ten this season, which means that there are a number of teams that can take advantage of everybody else's weaknesses. Michigan can be that team, but I still think they need to find an identity on offense first. Is this Denard Robinson's offense or is it Al Borges'?
If it's Al Borges' offense, then this defense can't afford to give up more than the 24 points they gave up this weekend. If it's Robinson's offense, then they'd have a little bit more leeway.
Who knows, maybe the productive fourth quarter against Iowa with Robinson in the shotgun can be the wake up call that Borges needs.
Or maybe he'll just hit snooze.
The Road To The Big One
September 3 Michigan 34 – Western Michigan 10 (1-0)
September 10 Michigan 35 - Notre Dame 31 (2-0)
September 17 Michigan 31 - Eastern Michigan 3 (3-0)
September 24 Michigan 28 - San Diego State 7 (4-0)
October 1 Michigan 58 - Minnesota 0 (5-0, 1-0)
October 8 Michigan 42 – Northwestern 24 (6-0, 2-0)
October 15 Michigan State 28 – Michigan 14 (6-1, 2-1)
October 29 Michigan 36 - Purdue 14 (7-1, 3-1)
November 5 Iowa 24 - Michigan 16 (7-2, 3-2)
November 12 at Illinois
November 19 Nebraska
November 26 Ohio State
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