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Michigan ∞, Iowa 17: Thoughts on a Massacre

A belated recap-type thing concerning Iowa's brutal beatdown at the hands of Michigan.

Gregory Shamus

The Big House is still big. Cutting insight, no? I've attended the last two Iowa-Michigan games in Ann Arbor and during each game there's a point when it dawns on me that "Oh yeah, there are 113,000 other people in attendance at this game with me," which is kind of mind-blowing. I don't think the Big House is a terribly beautiful structure (although it's perfectly nice) and I don't think there's anything utterly remarkable about it. It's just... big. Both of my trips to the Big House have also been post-renovations, so my experience with it has been that it can get pretty loud. It's not the loudest stadium I've ever been in, but it's no longer really "the Big Mausoleum" or "the world's biggest outdoor library" or whatever other pejorative that got hung on it in the past.

Anyway, your humble blogger watched this drubbing in-person, approximately thirty-five rows up in the western corner of the south end zone. It was a nice seat -- the viewing angles were pretty good and all but one touchdown (Devin Gardner's 1-yard sneak for the first points of the game) happened in the end zone right in front of me. Other than the fact that Iowa played like warmed-over dogshit, it was a lovely day. The weather was gorgeous, the people were friendly*, and at least half of the participants on the field seemed intent on playing sound, exciting football. Unfortunately, they were wearing maize and blue, not black and gold.

* As we were leaving, they asked us to do them a favor and beat Nebraska next week. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders; we'd both just watched the same game, right? Unless they wanted to lend us a Devin Gardner and a competent defense, the same team that got eviscerated by the Wolverines is the team that was going to be suiting up on Friday against Nebraska. If Michigan wanted to play in the Big Ten Championship Game, they should have let Devin Gardner play quarterback against Nebraska. (To be fair, based on current results, they should have made Devin Gardner their quarterback long ago. He's an actual mobile quarterback, not a slot receiver/scatback masquerading as a quarterback like a certain someone on their team.)

Let's do a little good news/bad news for this recap.

GOOD NEWS! Iowa's first scoring drive of the day (their second overall drive) may have been their finest drive of the season. They went 75 yards on 14 plays, gobbled up almost seven minutes of the clock, mixed run plays and pass plays well, and -- shock of shocks! -- ended the drive with a well-thrown pass for a touchdown. It was a remarkably competent-looking drive, which was a jolting sight after seeing the Iowa offense look thoroughly incompetent for most of this season (and in particular against Indiana and Purdue). For it to happen against an actual solid defense as well... yowza.

BAD NEWS! That was Iowa's only good drive of the game, at least while it was still a competitive affair. They had another drive that covered 81 yards on ten plays and ended in a turnover on downs (because of a wholly unnecessary attempted juke by Martin-Manley) and a drive that covered 45 yards on seven plays and ended in a touchdown... but Iowa was down 42-10 by that point. Anything the offense did at that point was irrelevant.

GOOD NEWS! Mark Weisman was a very welcome sight indeed in Iowa's backfield. His final stats weren't that great -- 63 yards on 16 carries (3.9 yards per carry), three receptions for 11 yards and a touchdown -- but the offense still seemed to function a bit better with him in the game and the running game in particular looked a bit more threatening. Damon Bullock has had some nice games this season, but Weisman is still the best running back Iowa's had this year. Not having him for the better part of four games definitely a significant blow for the offense.

BAD NEWS! Well, there's no bad news about Weisman's return, actually. The bad news is probably just that it couldn't have happened a month ago.

GOOD NEWS! C.J. Fiedorowicz had his best game of the season -- and probably his Iowa career. For once, Iowa remembered that they had a giant pass-catching target in the middle of the field -- and took advantage of it. The Polish Hat had eight receptions for 99 yards (including a long of 37 yards) and was a definite bright spot in the passing offense. It's just a shame that it took until the 11th game of the season for Fiedorowicz to have a game like this. Let's give a shout-out to Henry Krieger-Coble as well; he also had his finest game of his Iowa career so far (3 receptions, 24 yards, 1 TD) and looked like a smooth pass-catching option. It was refreshing to see Iowa utilize their tight ends so effectively.

BAD NEWS! That said, it didn't mean that the receivers had to completely disappear from the passing game. Kevonte Martin-Manley was the only Iowa receiver to catch the ball -- he had two catches for five yards -- and he didn't log his first catch until deep in garbage time in the fourth quarter. (To be honest, at that point I was rooting for Iowa to go an entire game without completing a pass to a receiver, just for the perverse novelty of it. Alas.) Keenan Davis was a bystander in this game and while Tevaun Smith saw several snaps, he didn't do much with them. It was nice to see the tight end re-established as part of the Iowa passing offense, but it shouldn't have been at the expense of the receivers. The lack of involvement from the receivers meant the Iowa passing game was seriously lacking in width and the ability to stretch the field.

GOOD NEWS! James Vandenberg had, statistically speaking, one of his better days of the season: 19/26, 181 yards, 2 TD/0 INT. It was his first multiple-TD game of the season (really) and he didn't make any egregious or costly errors.

BAD NEWS! Of course, several of those yards came in garbage time in the fourth quarter and he was unable to help the Iowa offense sustain drives after those two early scoring drives; when the Iowa defense was bleeding out in the second and third quarters, Vandenberg and the offense did nothing to help them out. After a field goal on their first drive of the second quarter, the Iowa offense punted on three of their next four drives -- and ran out the clock at the end of the first half on the other drive. (And, actually, that was one of Vandenberg's bigger blunders in the game -- heave the ball into the end zone on the last play, dammit. Don't just scamper out of bounds.)

GOOD NEWS! It sure was nice to see Jake Rudock get some snaps in a blowout situation.

BAD NEWS! Wait, sorry, that was just a hallucination on my part. Mea culpa.

GOOD NEWS! Jordan Cotton is a damn fine kick returner. He had four returns for 117 yards Saturday, good for an average of almost 30 yards per return. He's Iowa's most dynamic kick returner since DJK and a real weapon in that aspect of the game, which is a very welcome sight. In fact, special teams in general was a big plus for Iowa on Saturday. Connor Kornbrath averaged over 41 yards per punt (although he also shanked one punt very, very badly), Micah Hyde had a 14-yard punt return for Iowa, and Iowa limited their kick returner to just 33 total return yards.

BAD NEWS! Winning the special teams battle is really only important when the game is close. This game was not close.

GOOD NEWS! The Iowa defense... no. There is no good news about the Iowa defense.

BAD NEWS! The Iowa defense was absolutely woeful. They gave up 42 points and 513 yards... and it probably should have been more. (For a while, I was convinced Michigan would become the first team to crack 50 points against a Ferentz-coached Iowa team.) Only a Micah Hyde interception stopped Michigan from scoring early in the fourth quarter and after that Michigan seemed to put their offense on ice. But before that? No stops. The Iowa defense could not get Michigan's offense off the field. At all. Ever. Michigan went 9/12 (!) on third downs and 2/2 on fourth downs. They punted once the entire game (late in the fourth quarter, after the result was assured). They scored six touchdowns on their first six possessions. I thought the Penn State game was the nadir of Iowa's defense; I was wrong.

For the last month or so, the Iowa defense has looked utterly hapless. They look lost. They look confused. Guys rarely seem to know what they should be doing or where they should be (Michigan scored two touchdowns when receivers got wide open behind the defense). And when they are in place, Iowa defenders are rarely making a good play. Missed tackles have become an epidemic. Bad angles of pursuit are the new normal. Defensive pressure from the line is a myth; ditto competent pass coverage from the secondary.

We were nervous about the state of the Iowa defense in the pre-season, given the change-over from Norm to Phil Parker and the presence of so many young and/or untested bodies on the defensive line, but I don't think we ever expected it to be this abysmal. Certainly not after the first month when they looked remarkably... well... competent. Unlike the offense, the defense can't even blame costly injuries for their sharp decline in play. Not having James Morris at full strength yesterday and not having Anthony Hitchens certainly hurt, but for the most part this defensive unit has been pretty healthy in 2012. They're just not good.

This is the worst Iowa defense since 1999 and 2000 and, as much as we've spent the last three months bagging on Greg Davis and the horrors of the horizontal offense (in particular, its poor fit with the current Iowa personnel and its seeming incompatibility with Ferentz's beloved zone running game), we should also take some time to discuss the fact that Iowa's other new coordinator, Phil Parker, has not been covering himself in glory in October and November. The constant confusion about where to be, the poor tackling fundamentals... those are coaching issues. There is a definite talent shortage on the defense -- it's virtually impossible to look at the guys playing this year and say that any of them would be starting for the defenses Iowa fielded in 2002-04 or 2008-10 -- but the coaching they're receiving isn't helping to disguise that issue, either. If anything, it might be making it worse.

GOOD NEWS! There's only one more game left in this season. A week from now we can file away the 2012 football season in the pile of things we'd like to forget and move the fuck on to other sports and other seasons. This season has imploded in spectacular fashion and I think we'll all be happy to move on from it.

BAD NEWS! Still, it's disappointing that Iowa is ineligible for a bowl game -- and assured of their lowest win total -- since 2000. That's a significant step backwards for the program and one that should be alarming. And while we may harbor no desire to watch this team play more games, the players themselves could probably still use the additional practices that a bowl game would bring. (On the other hand, if the coaching they're receiving is contributing to these terrible performances, maybe additional coaching isn't the answer after all.)

Just one more game left. Thank God.