What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? This week: Zach at Maize n Brew, SB Nation's excellent blog for all things Wolverine. That's Wolverines as in Michigan, though, not Wolverines as in Hugh Jackman. Which is a shame because their traffic would probably be through the roof if they were a Hugh Jackman fan site.
1) The last time Hawkeye fans saw Devin Gardner, he was ripping Iowa's secondary apart to the tune of 314 yards passing and six total TDs. It's fair to say that he's, uh, struggled a bit since then. I thought he was poised to dominate the Big Ten after the way he was playing at the end of 2012 -- what's happened? Has he regressed? Have the guys around him on offense regressed? Have teams figured out how to defend him?
I don't think Gardner has gotten any worse really. In fact, he has worked on a lot of the little things that will help make him a better quarterback down the road. His footwork, his throwing mechanics, and his ability to read defenses all looks improved this year.
There are three main reasons why this hasn't worked out. First, teams are more prepared for him. There is a lot more film on Gardner which makes it easy to gameplan and take advantage of his tendencies. Teams have had a lot of success breaking off coverages to undercut short routes to Jeremy Gallon, just like defensive lines have gotten better at keeping him from getting the edge and taking off. Gardner is a good quarterback, but he isn't great and that means that there are always things you can do to rattle him. This leads to the second issue: he just isn't consistent as a quarterback. While he is a better player this year, it hasn't always translated as such on the field because Gardner tends to let things get to him and affect the way he plays.
Early in the year against Akron and UConn he looked visibly shaken. He tried to do too much too early and when things weren't working he tried to force things which turned into turnovers and really screwed his head up. He started working out from under that until teams recognized some issues on the offensive line which has meant that Gardner now is eating sacks at a phenomenal rate, which has caused him to become ultra conservative as his line crumbles around him. And really, that is the third issue. Michigan's offensive line has been a disaster all year. Because of this Michigan hasn't had a functional run game or a steady pass blocking presence. Often, Gardner is all this offense has in terms of even gaining positive yards. He has more often than not found ways to make it work, but the situation is far from ideal, and it doesn't allow him to be the kind of dangerous playmaker that Michigan would like to see.
2) How surprising have Michigan's struggles over the last month been to you? Were the games against Akron and UConn sufficient warning signs that something was amiss with this team? Did you expect Michigan to have some of these issues as the season began?
Not surprising at all, really. It was clear early in the season that the offensive line was going to be a major issue. Michigan dealt with Notre Dame well enough, but once the line didn't improve against Akron and UConn it was obvious that we were moving toward panic mode. Sure enough, the next few games saw a handful of different starting lineups including an oft-injured redshirt sophomore, a true freshman, a walk-on, and a redshirt freshman tackle playing guard. With all the youth and inexperience, it was inevitable that teams would start to double down on attacking that weakness, and both Michigan State and Nebraska both brought a lot of pressure up the middle and dared Michigan to execute amid the confusion. Two negative rushing totals later and you can see how that worked out.
This offensive line is bad. It isn't going to get appreciably better until next year at the soonest, and it will be very hard for Michigan to win any of its next three games (including the bowl) because of that line. The Wolverines found a little success on the ground last week, but I don't see that continuing against Iowa and Ohio State. This season's line play has been somewhere along the lines of the worst case scenario that I imagined before the season. I was optimistic that the line would gel quicker and come together, but it is clear that any optimism was misguided.
3) Outside of Gardner, who are some threats on the Wolverine offense that Iowa fans should be aware of? Is Fitzgerald Touissant going to be able to play on Saturday or is someone else going to have to lead the rushing attack for Big Blue? Who is likely to get behind Iowa's defensive backs for a big play?
The biggest threats are the guys on the outside. Jeremy Gallon has been having an incredible year and is on the short list for best receiver in the Big Ten. Michigan will use him both on short passes and screens as well as down the field. I don't know if there is a better receiver in the conference when it comes to getting separation. Opposite him is tight end turned wide receiver Devin Funchess. Funchess will still moonlight at TE, but if you see him with his hand in the dirt it is most likely a pass. He isn't much of a blocker, but he is 6'5, fast, and has a knack for getting open. If Gardner is getting time to get the ball out, Michigan can do some damage down the field. Iowa's best bet is to get pressure quick.
My guess is that Fitz Toussaint is back at running back. Last week Michigan's two freshmen, Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith, took on the bulk of the rushing load and put Michigan over 100 yards on the day and over four yards/carry on average. I don't know if they were that much better than Fitz or if the line just didn't completely explode, but Michigan does have a few options there. I think the coaches lean on the senior but work in Green for 30-40% of the carries.
4) Who are some defensive players that Iowa fans should know about in advance of Saturday? Who's likely to be chasing Jake Rudock out of the pocket or blanketing Iowa's receivers?
Michigan's defense hasn't had a great reputation this year because of some inflated scores, but the Michigan defense has been a really solid unit that is playing better each week. Up front the biggest threats are Jibreel Black and Frank Clark. Black is an undersized NT (280 lbs) that is a quick slasher. Michigan will slant a lot when he is in the game and will have success with it. Frank Clark was supposed to be Michigan's breakout lineman this year, and only in the last few weeks has he shown some of that promise. He is a solid, physical pass rusher that struggles at time maintaining rush lanes and run assignments.
Behind the line Michigan has a really good group of linebackers. Jake Ryan you already know. He is still working back to 100% from an ACL injury he suffered in April. I'm also not entirely sure he is human. He has flashed a few vintage Jake Ryan plays, but he is still a ways off from peak form. Michigan's middle linebackers are Desmond Morgan and James Ross III. Both are a bit undersized, but both are really quick, instinctual linebackers that can get past blocks and meet the running back in the hole.
In the secondary Michigan has a pair of talented corners in Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor. Both are good-not-great, but can make you pay with a savvy interception when the quarterback loses them in coverage. Michigan has inexplicably been shuffling its safeties the last couple weeks. The two established starters are senior Thomas Gordon and sophomore Jarrod Wilson. Gordon has been a three year starter and Wilson was a backup and four-star recruit last year before moving into the starting role. Michigan has been bringing in a senior safety that has never had meaningful playing time and a converted nickel corner who is 5'10. No one understands this, but if either of Josh Furman or Courtney Avery is on the field, Iowa will have a chance to break a big play against a defense that has been very good at stopping those with Wilson and Gordon on the back end.
5) How do you feel about the new Big Ten divisional alignment coming next season? You guys are one of the few teams actually trading places between the divisions. Are you excited about being in the same division as Ohio State? Are you going to miss your Legends pals?
On one hand I like the new divisional lineup. Michigan benefits from getting divisional games against its two biggest rivals (Ohio State and Michigan State) as well as Penn State, a power program in rebuilding mode. Long term these are all really great games to feature on a year to year basis and it protects the importance of Michigan's games against these teams.
But man, I really hate a lot of the divisional consequences. Michigan is going to continue losing out on games against Wisconsin (it has been three years since the teams last met) and now the same is going to happen to games against Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, and the rest of the division. To be totally honest, the west division feels a lot more "Big Ten" to me, and I am going to miss getting the opportunity for Michigan to play all these teams on a yearly basis. Those were the Big Ten games I grew up on, and shelving them for games against Rutgers and Maryland leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Also, I really don't want Michigan to have to deal with Indiana's up-tempo offense for the foreseeable future. Someone needs to hire Kevin Wilson quick.
6) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
I want to believe, and I don't want to be a downer, but I have no confidence in Michigan's ability to win this game thanks to the offensive ineptitude that has been showcased the past month-plus. I don't think Iowa is going to have much luck against Michigan's defense. I like Michigan's D to hold the ground game down and force Iowa to pass. This should force a lot of three-and-out and first-down-and-out drives. Of course, Michigan will do its thing by going three-and-out a lot and moving backward in big chunks, thereby giving away field position. Iowa wins 20-13 because of consistently better field position and an offense that doesn't shoot itself in the foot at least once a drive.
Thanks for being a good sport, Zach, although I still hope your team loses by 50 on Saturday. You can check out Zach and the rest of the MnB crew at Maize n Brew. You can also follow Zach on Twitter at @zach_travis and MnB at @MaizenBrew. The Iowa-Michigan game is in Iowa City on Saturday, November 23, and is scheduled to start at 11:00 am CT, with television coverage from BTN.