IOWA 24, MICHIGAN 21: THE CLOSEST BLOWOUT

Matthew Holst

Iowa posted a dominant win over Michigan -- sort of.

The only upset on Saturday was the final score -- namely, that it wasn't more lopsided.  Iowa dominated the game  in almost every facet -- but that one facet nearly ended up costing them what should have been a sure victory.

Iowa-michigan_football_box_score_medium

Iowa had 2.5 times as many offensive yards as Michigan, including almost three times as many rushing yards.  They ran 17 more plays than Michigan and held the ball for almost seven minutes longer than Michigan (time of possession is an oft-overrated stat but it has some relevance when both teams involved in a game want to play keep-away with the ball).  They controlled this game in almost every way that mattered.  So why was the game close?  Why were we sweating out a fourth-quarter scoring drive to give Iowa its first (and only) lead of the game?  Why were we hoping the defense could make one more stop on Michigan's final offensive series?

Because turnovers.

Iowa was credited with four turnovers in the game, the first two of which were incredibly damaging.  The first turnover, a Rudock interception on Iowa's first offensive play of the game, was returned 13 yards for Michigan's first touchdown of the game.  (An aside: that play brought back enormously unsettling memories of the 2009 Northwestern game; at least Rudock's ankle remained in one piece after the play.  But maybe Iowa should remove the part of the playbook with play-action rollouts when they're on that part of the field.)  The second turnover, another Rudock interception, allowed Michigan to set up shop at the Iowa 28-yard line, from which they scored another touchdown.

Iowa's other two turnovers weren't as costly; the fumbled snap on the field goal attempt came at the end of the first half and Rudock's third interception (in the third quarter) caused no damage after the defense was able to force a three-and-out and a Michigan punt.  Michigan had precisely one decent drive on the day, a 10-play, 47-yard drive that ended in Michigan's third and final touchdown; their offense really did nothing outside of that game.  Going into this game, I suspected that the main way Iowa could lose would be if they made mistakes or gifted points to Michigan -- that's exactly what happened and it almost cost them the game.  Fortunately, Iowa was able to overcome those mistakes and it didn't cost them a much-deserved victory.

The reason this victory was much-deserved had more to do with the defense (which was superb) than the offense (which was adequate).

Michigan_drive_summary_medium

21 points might not look like it, but Iowa's defense yesterday was really, really good -- probably the best it's been all season.  I mean, look at the stats posted up above and take your pick.  Michigan punted 10 times.  They had four drives that gained 0 yards or negative yards.  They averaged just 2.1 yards per rush... and an even more mind-boggling 3.5 yards per pass attempt.  Officially, they recorded just one sack and three QB hurries, but they seemed to get quite a bit of pressure on Devin Gardner throughout the game.  About the only thing they didn't do was force a turnover -- that is, until the most important point of the game.

There were a lot of standout performers to praise on defense, but any acclaim probably has to start with Iowa's trio of senior linebackers.  Just look at their stat lines:

Anthony Hitchens: 8 tackles (5 solo), 3 TFL, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 2 QB hurries
James Morris: 8 tackles (3 solo), 1.5 TFL, 1 pass break-up, 1 QB hurry
Christian Kirksey: 6 tackles (0 solo), 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks

Excellent days, all.  Morris, in particular, had some tremendous tackles and coverage during the game, but it's pretty much impossible not to give Hitchens Man of the Match honors for his efforts yesterday.  He was in the middle of countless plays, got excellent pressure on Gardner, blew up several running plays... and, oh yeah, he made the biggest defensive play of the game by forcing (and recovering!) the fumble that enabled Iowa to ice the game.  Hell of a Senior Day for Hitch, probably one of the all-time best for an Iowa player.  He's somewhat quietly put together a really fine senior season, with 95 tackles (best on the team, 4th in the Big Ten), including 13 TFL (also best on the team, 4th in the Big Ten).  He's had a very strong season and he might have saved his best for his last-ever play in his last-ever appearance in Kinnick Stadium.  Well done, Hitch.

The other defensive stars yesterday were Iowa's starting defensive tackles, Louis Trinca-Pasat and Carl Davis, who had excellent games of their own.

LTP: 7 tackles (4 solo), 1 TFL
Davis: 8 tackles (2 solo), 2.5 TFL, 1 pass break-up, 0.5 sacks

Stats paint a pretty nice picture of their game, but it's probably still not a complete picture -- LTP and Davis were as disruptive as any Iowa defensive tackles in several years.  They blew up numerous plays, harassed Gardner all night, and generally just dominated Michigan's interior line.  There may still be some question marks about Iowa's defensive ends going forward, but the future is looking pretty bright at tackle.

As for the offense... Rudock had a pretty rough day with the three interceptions, but he did bounce back with a pair of touchdowns (including a pretty nice one to Tevaun Smith) and had a few good scrambles, despite being obviously hobbled by his recent knee injury.  Still, even though Rudock had a pretty brutal first half, he deserves a serious tip of the cap for his second half efforts:

Yeah, that's not too bad.

Rudock's favorite target yesterday was Tevaun Smith, who had the breakout game Iowa fans have been hoping to see for a while: 5 catches for 97 yards, including a spectacular 55-yard catch-and-run TD that provided a much-needed jolt for the Iowa players and fans early in the third quarter.  Perhaps we should have known that this was going to be Tevaun's time to shine; the weather was decidedly Canadian on Saturday (cold and windy) and it was the weekend of the Grey Cup -- no doubt Tevaun's Canadian pride was flowing through his veins a little more strongly than normal this weekend.  One game does not a season make, but if this could be the start of good things on a more regular basis for Smith, well, that would be pretty swell.  Lord knows Iowa's offense certainly needs some more receivers to emerge as consistent threats.

But perhaps the most exciting part of the Iowa offense on Saturday was the running game, especially in the second half when Iowa seemed to crack the heretofore unbreakable code: how to effectively use Jordan Canzeri AND Mark Weisman.  Weisman ran the ball 17 times for 88 yards and a touchdown; Canzeri ran the ball 12 times for 50 yards, which is a pretty effective distribution of carries for those two players.  Weisman looked healthier on Saturday than he had in several weeks, which surely contributed to his effectiveness yesterday, but it's also hard to shake the notion that Canzeri's presence (and his own effectiveness) put pressure on the defense that Weisman was able to exploit.  Iowa does not have a Marcus Coker or a Shonn Greene in the backfield this year -- there are no guys that can carry the ball 30 times and dominate the running game.  But that doesn't mean Iowa can't put together a fairly effective running game with the pieces they have -- it just means they have to be a little more creative in how they do so.  Yesterday was an excellent first step in figuring out how to make this running back partnership work.

And so Iowa moves on to their final game of the regular season, a Black Friday tilt with Nebraska in Lincoln.  Win that game and Iowa can finish 8-4 overall, 5-3 in the Big Ten... good for second in the Legends Division.  That would be a pretty good accomplishment for a team that had a miserable 4-8 campaign last year and lost their season opener this year.  Not to mention the fact that it would be a A WIN OVER NEBRASKA  Throw out the talk about the record, the Big Ten standings, and bowl positioning.  All of that stuff is nice, but it's also window dressing -- just beating Nebraska would be immensely satisfying in its own right.  So let's go do that.

A few other quick thoughts:

  • Greg Davis' playcalling still drives me nuts at times (see: the play that led to Rudock's first interception), but credit where it's due: the bootleg pass on third down late in the fourth quarter to ice the game was pretty damn brilliant.
  • This week's use of Damond Powell: a hand-off on a jet sweep that went for 7 rushing yards.  Well... they're trying?  For all the good that the bowl practices will give Iowa, one of the most exciting effects of those practices should be the ability to get Powell better integrated within the offense.  Hopefully, the bowl game will give us a better idea of what Powell's role could be in the passing game next year.
  • Desmond King had a pretty nice game (3 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 pass break-ups) and seemed to be playing with a bit of an extra edge; I'm sure our favorite Michigan-born cornerback was eager to show Michigan what they were missing by not recruiting him.
  • Hey, Jordan Cotton finally had a really good kick return this season!  Iowa wasn't able to turn his 60-yard return into points (in part because it came very late in the second quarter and at a point when Iowa had no timeouts), but it was still good to see him put together a big return in what had been a fairly quiet senior year otherwise.
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