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Iowa 24, Michigan 16: Winning With... Defense?

Boots to the rescue! (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Boots to the rescue! (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Surely everyone knew Iowa would knock off a 15th ranked Michigan team a week after losing to Minnesota, right? No? Yeah, maybe not. Iowa teams under Ferentz have shown an ability to persevere and rebound from painful losses with stirring wins in the past (see: Michigan in 2003, Wisconsin in 2005, Illinois in 2007, Penn State in 2008, Michigan State last year). But marshaling your forces for a single win is one thing; maintaining that momentum over a stretch of games is another matter entirely. After the Michigan win in 2003 and the Illinois win in 2007, Iowa turned around and immediately lost the next week (albeit on the road both times). The 2008 Penn State win remains the gold standard in "get your shit together and run off a bunch of wins," but even there Iowa needed a 200+ yard game from Shonn Greene and a failed Curtis Painter hail mary to avoid losing a letdown game to Purdue the following week.

It's hard to maintain that level of focus and intensity week to week to week. Last year Iowa infamously followed up the beatdown of Sparty with a steady distintegration over the course of November. This year's remaining November schedule is no picnic, either: they still play the other two Floyd division favorites (Michigan State and Nebraska) and have to figure out how to win on the road against a Purdue team that's been occasionally frisky. So it's impossible to say what the future will hold, or whether this win was the precursor to good times ahead (a la Penn State in 2008) or simply a dead cat bounce that ultimately signifies nothing (a la Michigan State in 2010).

But those are the concerns for next week and the week after that and the week after that. For now, let's enjoy the fact that we won't be joining Indiana and Minnesota in the Queso Bowl this year (despite the pessimistic projections of, um, me) and that this was a solid, impressive win for a team that badly needed it. A loss like last week's stinkbomb against Minnesota can do two things to a team: break their spirit and cause them to throw in the towel or dig deep and rededicate themselves. There were a lot of people here and elsewhere who thought it would do the former, but that certainly didn't look like a team with a broken spirit yesterday.

We come not to condemn the defense, but to... praise them? Yes, for the first time all season we can do what almost went without saying for the last few years: the Iowa defense played a good game. Iowa held one of the best offenses in the Big Ten to 323 yards of offense and 16 points -- and many of those came in the fourth quarter. Raise your hand if you thought Michigan would score fewer points against Iowa than Indiana or Minnesota. Or that Denard Robinson would record fewer total yards against Iowa than Tre Roberson. Anyone? Anyone? Yeah, I didn't think so. Everyone (me included) assumed that for Iowa to win they would have to do so in a shootout, likely scoring at least 30 points. But no: Iowa won a game that was a comparative defensive slugfest. Hell, the much maligned 2011 defense held Michigan to far fewer yards and points than the far better 2009 and 2010 defenses. Who thought that was possible?

The defense's success was a function of both scheme and execution. Norm Parker came up with a solid gameplan to limit Robinson's explosiveness and confine him to the pocket (see: the defensive line's dogged determination to maintain outside contain in this game), as well as the usual Iowa plan to limit big plays downfield. Mission accomplished. Denard ran for only 55 yards on 12 carries (though that figure also includes some sack yardage) and Michigan's biggest gain all day was a 22-yard Robinson run. In addition to maintaining outside contain better than we'd seen, well, pretty much all year and covering well downfield, the Iowa defense also succeeded at something we hadn't seen from an Iowa defense in a long time: punishing the other team. This wasn't quite "Bullies of the Big Ten" material, but the Iowa defense did a solid job of getting some good hits on the Michigan players (particularly Robinson).

To be fair, there was also a certain element of good fortune smiling upon the Iowa defense yesterday: Michigan receivers had more than a few inexplicable drops, on the times when the downfield coverage did break down Robinson couldn't throw a deep pass to save his life yesterday (and Michigan OC Al Borges bizarrely seemed to keep calling a lot of deep passes), Robinson was strangely unwilling to tuck the ball and run on pass plays (I was terrified of him doing that after watching MarQueis Gray -- and Tre Roberson and Kain Colter and Steele Jantz and... -- do that to Iowa last week) and a few key officiating decisions went Iowa's way.* But there was more than luck involved in Iowa's defensive performance yesterday -- they played well and that deserves recognition.

* For the record, I thought the called-back touchdown run was the correct call (his arm was down) and the uncalled touchdown catch on second down was also the correct call (didn't look like he had complete control of the catch until he was out of bounds). The uncalled pass interference on Lowery at the end of the game was probably the wrong call, but it was uncalled for the same reason you don't see many fouls called on shots at the end of a basketball game: unless it's an absolute mugging, officials aren't going to blow a whistle (or throw a flag). From the objective "a foul is a foul (or "pass interference is pass interference"), no matter when it happens in a game" standpoint, was it fair? No. But different standards do exist and have always existed. Sorry, Big Blue. (And, frankly, after all the calls I've seen go Michigan's way in past Iowa games, I was more than happy to see Iowa get a break here.)

As good as the overall team defensive performance was, there were a few individual defensive performances that were particularly good. Tyler Nielsen was an absolute force from middle linebacker -- just look at this stat line on the Man of the Match poll: 13 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, a forced fumble (and recovery), a sack, and one credited quarterback hurry (although it seemed like more than that, frankly). He was a big part of Iowa's success at keeping Robinson contained and his pressure on the final series (via blitzing!) was vital to the win. Broderick Binns also had a very fine game. The stats look okay (3 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 3 pass break ups), but don't really tell the entire story: he was a disruptive force for much of the day and a big part of Iowa's success at keeping contain against Michigan's speedy backfield. Although one stat does leap off the page: three pass break ups. From a defensive end. For the season, Binns has six pass break ups (tied with Micah Hyde for the most on the team) and for his career he has 19 pass break ups (more than anyone else on the team; Prater has the second most with 16). Binns' go-go-gadget arms are one of his best attributes as a defender and they've enabled him to play passing lanes as well as any Iowa defensive lineman I can ever remember.

To be sure, it was hardly a perfect defensive performance for Iowa: while the tackling was improved, there were still a few too many missed tackles that led to additional yards (and first downs) for Michigan (particularly late in the game) and only an impressive goal line stand prevented them from again giving up two fourth quarter scoring drives. Still, there was definite progress for this very beleaguered unit, which was very heartening. Hopefully they can build upon that for the remaining games this season. It was particularly nice to see them actually get a stop this week after giving up the game-winning score in an almost identical situation (1st and goal from the 3) at Minnesota last week. (Atlhough it again begs the question of why Robinson never once tried to take off for the corner of the end zone like Gray last week.)

Coaching to win? All in all, this was a pretty well-coached game from an Iowa standpoint. As noted above, Norm put together a solid gameplan and mixed in some good blitzes. Outside of the lone second half scoring drive, the Iowa offense didn't do much in the second half, but O'Keefe called a pretty decent game in the first half. It was interesting that Iowa didn't seem to try many vertical passes; I'm not sure if that was a result of the windy conditions or something Michigan's defense was doing. Iowa did have particular trouble in short yardage situations, though: Vandenberg got stuffed on a QB sneak on 4th and 1 in the first half and Coker was stuffed on a pair of 3rd and 1s in the fourth quarter; as good as Coker is and as good as that QB sneak has been in short yardage situations, it seems like we might need to come up with a few twists. For his part, Ferentz was a bit more aggressive than we've seen from him in the past -- he went for it on 4th down twice in the first half (including on 4th and 7!) -- and he only punted once from the Michigan side of the field (4th and 6 at the Michigan 48 in the fourth quarter). The decision to squib kick after the second touchdown was pretty terrible, though, and could have been really costly if not for Christian Kirksey's timely interception. And Iowa once again sat on the ball (and timeouts) at the end of the first half, although given the field position (the Iowa 20), the conditions (gusty), and the time remaining (1:02), it wasn't exactly an indefensible decision.

Werewolf of Iowa City. Remember when Marcus Coker was struggling in September? When he looked tentative, indecisive, and slow and had a maddening propensity to put the ball on the turf? Yeah, he doesn't quite look like that anymore. Saturday was Coker's fourth straight day with 120+ yards and 2 TDs. He's moved to the top of the Big Ten leaderboard for rushing yards and he's fifth in the entire nation with 1101 yards through nine games. Right now he's on pace for just shy of 1500 yards for the regular season. More importantly, he looks good running the ball again -- he looks like the confident, assertive runner he was at the end of last season. He's never going to have breakaway speed (alas), but watching him punish opposing defenders is a treat in its own right. From a big picture perspective, it would make sense to spell him a little bit more (despite being cleared to play, Mika'il McCall didn't sniff the field on Saturday), but I can also understand the coaches' reluctance to go away from Coker when he's running the ball as well as he is now. Before the season we hoped he could be the Big Ten's best running back and, all apologies to Silas Redd and Montee Ball, right now he's running like he is the best back in the league.

We can haz tight ends? Two catches for ten yards and a touchdown is not exactly a ringing endorsement that the tight end position is back to what it used to be in the Iowa offense, but it's at least a positive step forward. Interwebs fan favorite C.J. Fiedorowicz got the start yesterday, and The Polish Hat seemed to play well. His blocking was good and his lone catch (a 9-yard grab that set up fellow tight end Brad Herman's 1-yard touchdown catch) was a great display of the incredible athletic ability that's had Iowa fans drooling over his potential for two years now. He was also targeted a few other times; perhaps a breakout performance is coming soon.

Tiny Alvis has left the building. The sour note from yesterday's win was the season-ending injury suffered by Dominic Alvis in the fourth quarter. Per Ferentz after the game, he tore his ACL, which means his season is kaput. (From a long-term perspective, it also raises the likelihood that Iowa will be fielding four new starters at defensive line next year... gulp.) That's terrible news, both for Alvis (obviously) and for the team. Defensive line has been a weak point all season and this team can ill afford to lose a player who had emerged as a regular contributor like Alvis. Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns have been the rocks of the defensive line this season and the most consistent players from that unit; I'm not sure how much more we can realistically ask of them. No, this is the time for guys like Lebron Daniel, Joe Forgy, Steve Bigach, Joe Gaglione, and Thomas Nardo to step up and make some plays for the Iowa defense. Daniel, Forgy, and Nardo are seniors, so this is their last chance to make an impact. Bigach and Gaglione are juniors and given the turnover and uncertainty surrounding the defensive line position, they may be essentially auditioning for starting gigs next year. Show us what you've got, gentlemen: the next three (four? five?) games are your moment. (And we wish Alvis a full and speedy recovery.)