1) Where does the Iowa game rank in terms of importance? Obviously Ohio State is your main rival and Michigan State is important as an in-state, "little brother" rival, but where does Iowa fit into the picture? Somehow Iowa's won three in a row against Michigan, which has to grate a little, I'm sure. Does that streak matter to the Michigan players? Does it matter that this is a shit-awful Iowa team?
Well, you're obviously right that Ohio State is the main one and Michigan State and Notre Dame are huge as well, but I think this year Iowa ranks up there pretty high because of that three game losing streak. Last year, Michigan ended its losing streak to OSU, and a few weeks ago restored order to the Michigan State rivalry, but the seniors have never beaten Iowa and you can bet they don't want to end their career with that blemish on their record. I don't think it matters that Iowa is down this year except that it will hurt that much more if Michigan were to lose for a fourth straight time. In my opinion, the fact that Iowa has won the last three gives the coaching staff the ability to keep the players from looking past a downtrodden Iowa team to next week's big game. I like that better than if Michigan were playing, say, Illinois this week.
2) What's the latest word on Denard's health for this game? Is he likely to play? If he does play, what's your over-under on how many yards he racks up on Iowa? 350? 400? Sorry, just to be clear: those are my guesses for his yardage in the first half.
Well, it's just a boo-boo. He's day to day. Oh, sorry. For a minute there I thought I was Brady Hoke. No one outside Fort Schembechler truly knows Denard's health and I don't like the situation that this week presents when it comes to Denard. Regardless of what anyone says about Devin Gardner (I'll get into that in the next question), a healthy Denard gives Michigan the best chance to win right now. So when you look big picture, you need him fully healthy for Ohio State next week. On the other hand, this weekend is senior day, the last time Denard will don the maize and blue in the Big House. It would truly be a shame if the last time he got to step foot on that field in a game was four weeks ago. He has meant so much to the resurgence of Michigan football, both on and off the field, that he deserves a great send-off. That being said, Hoke will never put one player ahead of the team, so if his elbow is not fully healthy, he's not going to play. And judging by the kind of selfless person and teammate Denard is, he would agree with that. IF he is healthy enough to play, I think we can expect a standard Denard performance, but I really don't think he will play much if at all this week.
3) Speaking of quarterbacks... it seems like Devin Gardner has done pretty well as a Denard stand-in the last few weeks. Has that surprised you? Is he positioning himself as Michigan's QB of the future or is this just a blip? And why the hell didn't he play when Denard got hurt in the Nebraska game?
Devin Gardner's performance the last two weeks really hasn't been that surprising. He has all the talent in the world to go along with a Vince Young-like commanding presence, though I'm not saying he's anywhere near Young's (Texas) ability yet. Whereas Denard is more like a running back that can pilot the offense, Gardner is a true quarterback that can run. There's no question that he is better suited for Al Borges' offense and the offense is run differently when he's in. It's much more of a pro-style, passing offense with some zone read mixed in. Gardner has shown a great ability to take off when lanes open up, which Denard has been hesitant to do except on designed runs. He has also said that his experience at receiver has helped him at quarterback because he knows the nuances of the routes and has good chemistry with the receivers. Think of Ryan Tannehill the past couple seasons. There's no doubt in my mind that Gardner will be Michigan's quarterback next season and the year after that if he gets his medical redshirt.
The Nebraska situation is unfortunate. In hindsight, he would have given Michigan a better chance to win that game than Russell Bellomy. But the coaching staff made a decision at the beginning of the season to move him to receiver given the state of the receiving corps, and the vast majority of Michigan fans were salivating at the idea of it. Aside from Roy Roundtree (who is rail thin), there wasn't another true outside receiver on the roster. The Jeremy Gallons and Drew Dileos are nice to have, but the offense needed a big guy on the outside. The only other guys on the roster that could have filled that role were Jerald Robinson and Jeremy Jackson, who have yet to prove anything, and a pair of true freshmen who could use a year in the program to add some strength. Of course, this all would have been a moot point had Darryl Stonum not decided to drink and drive his way out of Ann Arbor.
For the first half of the season, Bellomy took the second team reps at quarterback and Gardner didn't get many, so when Denard went down in Lincoln, Bellomy was the one that knew the offense the best. If this had happened at home against UMass it wouldn't have been a big deal. But in a night game at Nebraska, the moment was too big for Bellomy's first meaningful snaps. Looking back, moving Gardner over would have yielded better results, even if for no other reason than his athleticism and experience. It was a gamble the staff took at the beginning of the season, and even though Denard had taken some lumps over the past three years, he had never missed more than a couple of plays at a time, so there was no reason to believe otherwise. Gardner's athleticism was too good to keep on the bench for the possibility of Denard getting hurt. I think the only thing Hoke would do differently is still keep Gardner involved with significant QB reps all season even while playing receiver. But I'm not going to second guess the gamble. It's just unfortunate that it will likely cost Michigan the Legends division title.
4) Aside from giving up 31 points to Northwestern last week and getting blitzed by Alabama in the season opener, the Michigan defense has looked pretty salty this year. What are its biggest strengths? Are there any weaknesses that Iowa might be able to exploit? (lol)
Its biggest strength is the fortune of playing offenses like UMass, Notre Dame, Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State, and Minnesota. I kid. Sort of. This is a good defense and as long as Greg Mattison is coordinating it, it's only going to get better. But it has its flaws. While the pass defense ranks first nationally, it's more of a reflection of the lack of good passing teams it has faced. Alabama torched it and so did Northwestern when Trevor Siemian was in. Teams that have a running game that keeps Michigan's defense honest can have success through the air. Is James Vandenberg accurate with the deep ball? If so, then Michigan's corners can be beat deep. If not, then Michigan's happy to stop the run and make him beat them.
5) As a fan of team that survived a serious GERG-ing, can you offer us any advice on how to survive ours? Your GERG-ing was on the defensive side of the ball and ours is on the offensive side of the ball, but the inept playcalling, the regressing performances from players, and the overall reek of incompetence and futility all seem pretty familiar. Tell me it gets better.
You had to go and bring it up again didn't you? I've spent the last two years trying to suppress those memories and you have to go stirring them up again. Just kidding. It was definitely a dark period, but I can assure you it gets better. A solid and tradition-rich program like Iowa won't stay down for long. Maybe it's time for Ferentz to go? Lloyd Carr hung on a year or two too long and it precipitated our fall. But the biggest thing is to not lose faith. Like the late Bo Schembechler - who passed away six years ago this Saturday - used to say, "When your team is winning, be ready to be tough, because winning can make you soft. On the other hand, when your team is losing, stick by them. Keep believing."
6) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
Regardless of whether it's Denard or Devin behind center, Michigan will win convincingly and keep Hoke unbeaten in the Big House. Just please don't hurt Devin and I promise your biggest fans next week will be in Ann Arbor.
BONUS! I wrote a few words for Justin's blog, Maize and Go Blue, about how Iowa could beat Michigan this week. Remarkably, I did not use the words "tasers," "tear gas," "magic spells," or "rocket launchers" in that piece. Here's an excerpt:
And they’ll probably need to lock Greg Davis in a closet, give James Vandenberg a playbook from 2011, and hope for the best. Iowa has won three in a row over Michigan and they did pull an upset over Big Blue last year, but that was a better Iowa team, one that wasn’t bereft of talent, good ideas, and confidence. To win this year, Iowa probably needs a minor miracle.
Go read the rest of it here.
Thanks for being a good sport, Justin. Please don't beat us too badly. You can check out Justin at Maize and Go Blue. You can also follow him on Twitter at @maizeandgoblue. The Iowa-Michigan game is in Ann Arbor, MI on Saturday, November 17 at 11am CT, with television coverage from ESPN.