Michigan vs. Iowa Primer

Going to the game…a tailgate… maybe just the day with watching with friends on TV? Don't be caught off guard with what happens on the field, Saturday. Know your opponent with the Iowa Primer.

Each week we scout Michigan's opponent. We'll start with the basics, and then explore some relevant match-ups. For those that want to know more, we'll sprinkle in a mixture of history, reflection, and philosophy for a comprehensive look.

#13 Michigan (7-1) at Iowa (5-3)

Michigan Schedule:
(W) Western MI 34-10
(W) Notre Dame 35-31
(W) Eastern MI 31-3
(W) San Diego State 28-7
(W) Minnesota  58-0
(W) at Northwestern 42-24
(L) at Michigan State 14-28
(W) Purdue 36-14

Iowa Schedule:
(W) Tennessee Tech 34-7
(L) at Iowa State 41-44 3OT
(W) Pittsburgh 31-27
(W) ULM 45-17
(L) at Penn State 3-13
(W) Northwestern 41-31
(W) Indiana 45-24
(L) at Minnesota 21-22

Iowa Players to Watch:
QB James Vandenberg (Jr. #16) 2nd in the conference in passing yds; #3 in passing efficiency (155.2)
RB Marcus Coker (So. #34) Leads Big 10 in ypg (121.1); had 252 rushing yds last week at Minnesota
WR Marvin McNutt (Sr. #7) Leads the Big 10 in touchdown receptions (9); #2 in catches and yards
CB Shaun Prater (Sr. #28) First team All-Big Ten in 2010 (Coaches and Media); 3 forced fumbles
CB Micah Hyde (Jr. #18) Had a pick vs. Michigan last year; moved from safety to corner mid-season

What the heck happened to the Hawkeyes last week? Everyone assumed that Iowa would win on the road at Minnesota. Even one Big Ten coach in his post game press conference mentioned that there was a four-way-tie for first in the Legends division before Iowa and Minnesota kicked off.

The Gophers did a series of things or Iowa allowed them to accomplish a series of things they had previously been unable to achieve for the improbable 22-21 upset. Minnesota would spring an on-side kick Iowa wasn’t expecting, nearly double their seasonal sack total, and shutout an opponent after the 1st quarter for the first time since North Dakota State. Iowa would miss two field goals from a Lou Groza semi-finalist, and allow Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray to play his best game. When Gray ran to the pylon on 4th and goal for the game winning score with 2:48 remaining, it was the Gophers first lead in the month of October.

The local reaction, expectedly, has been strong. The support for Head Coach Kirk Ferentz is waning again. There have been rumors of coaching changes among the assistants and questions whether Ferentz himself has peaked. Ferentz has mildly joked about it, but he’s more in favor of challenging his team and staff as Iowa prepares to play their first ranked team of the season.

“We're just going to keep working,” says Ferentz. “The cavalry is not coming. We're not going out and picking up any free agents. Nobody is graduating midterm and coming in to help us, so we're just going to keep playing.

Ferentz has always weathered such storms by overachieving when expectations are the lowest.

“We haven't surrendered yet. We don't plan on surrendering.”

What looked like a reloading year has turned into a rebuilding year. No team in the Big 10 lost as many starters as Iowa did. For the second straight year, Iowa had six players selected in the 2011 NFL Draft. On offense they lost their QB, most of their pass catchers and a good portion of the offensive line. On defense, three of the front four were taken in the draft and they lost half of their stellar secondary. Iowa still has a couple of solid playmakers and there has been reason for optimism on the defense, but the team hasn’t always been able to overcome their flaws.

Iowa, with some scheduling breaks (no Ohio State, Wisconsin or Illinois), was expected to contend in the Legends division. After losing to Minnesota, fans are wondering if their November is going to spiral down like it did last season. The Hawkeyes finished 1-3 and it was nearly 0-4 if it weren’t for a dropped touchdown pass in the final minute of the Indiana game.

Losing to Minnesota for the second straight year was mind numbing as they have lost their two most important rivalry games. In week two they lost to Iowa State, a team they had outscored 87-15 in the previous three meetings. In Happy Valley, Iowa managed only three points, their lowest scoring output since 2005.
Iowa is perfect at home this year (5-0) and is 22-4 since the start of the 2008 season, but even that streak was in jeopardy. They needed a school record 21 point, late third quarter comeback against Pittsburgh.

This bleak outlook is again predicated on last week’s stunning loss, but it’s amazing this season the inability for road teams to win this season. In Big Ten Conference games, the home team are 18-8, but when the top nine teams play one another (excluding Northwestern, Indiana, and Minnesota), the home team is 11-2. Both road wins involve Ohio State, where the Buckeyes lost at home to MSU, short many of their starters. The other is when the Buckeyes won at Illinois, where many came back from suspension and an Illini team that is currently in a three game losing slide.

So, can you count on Iowa rebounding to win at home as they play their first ranked team of the season?

Iowa’s Offense vs. Michigan’s Defense
Quarterback James Vandenberg (Jr. #16) is an underrated passer in the Big 10. Only Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson has passed for more yards this season. Vandenberg, at 6’3”, is the type of prototypical passer you would see at Michigan during the Lloyd Carr and Gary Moeller eras. He can make some first downs by scrambling, but he doesn’t move his team down the field because of his feet. Put his scrambling ability between Brian Griese and Chad Henne.

The team when trailing by 21 to Pitt was forced to go to the no-huddle offense and they decided to keep it up until a couple of weeks ago. Vandenberg has 17 touchdowns with ten of them going for more than 20 yards. With Jordan Kovacs (Jr. #32) possibly sitting this game out with a knee injury, expect the secondary to be tested. Vandenberg has only thrown four interceptions, but Michigan’s defense has made a living on forcing turnovers. If Kovacs can’t go, expect Troy Woolfolk (Sr. #29) to play at safety. Woolfolk has played there in the past, but he and Thomas Gordon (So. #30) will be asked to be very vocal and must communicate effectively (at least better than Wisconsin) against an offense that has burned a lot of teams with play-action.

Vandenberg’s favorite target is Marvin McNutt (Sr. #7). He leads the Big Ten in touchdown grabs with nine. With two more touchdowns, he’ll tie the single-season record at Iowa. McNutt already has the career record with 25 touchdown catches. He averages nearly 18 ypc and six of his nine TD’s were for longer than his average. McNutt’s shortest TD pass was for 12 yards.

Due to heavy eligibility losses, Iowa didn’t have a known #2 receiver, but they found one in Keenan Davis (Jr. #6). Davis missed the Minnesota game with an ankle injury and like Kovacs, is questionable to return. The tea-leaves seem to suggest that he will. Davis has four scores and 463 yards in seven games.  
Tight ends are usually very productive in an Iowa offense, but surprisingly the newbies haven’t stepped it up and aren’t much of a factor this year with a collective one touchdown and 158 receiving yards.

It will be interesting to see how often Michigan blitzes. Certainly there are reasons why you wouldn’t with McNutt as a dangerous big-play man and with Kovacs, who shares the team’s sack led with Craig Roh (Jr. #58), not possibly playing. However, Vandenberg’s Achilles heel is executing under duress. Iowa receivers have also had the case of the dropsies this season and it was evident in last week’s loss to Minnesota.

Iowa should be able to bring balance to the offense with a solid running game. At the end of last season, the Hawkeyes fourth string running back was their top available rusher. Marcus Coker (So. #34) ran for over 200 yards in their Insight Bowl win over Missouri. Coker repeated his 200 yard + performance with 252 yards last week in the loss. Coker leads the Big 10 in rushing yards per game at 121.1, needing just 31 to hit 1,000 yds for the season. He has scored multiple touchdowns in the last three games. Coker is their running game. He represents 90 % of the rushing attempts in conference play.

The offensive line helps direct the rushing game with inside and outside zone plays. The Hawkeyes have been running zone blocking for a decade. As a group the Hawkeyes have had 11 linemen drafted since 2003, which is the most from any school. The 12th one will likely be LT Riley Reiff (Jr. #77). He’s hinted at going pro a year early, but for now he will start his 30th consecutive game.

As a group, the line has had heavy losses from last year, but this is a position group that normally excels because Ferentz has been a former OL coach at Iowa under Hayden Fry and for six years with the Cleveland Browns/Baltimore Ravens. Ferentz has had a reputation for getting these corn-fed players to overachieve.
Iowa only managed to score three points against Penn State. As celebrated as the Nittany Lion defense is, Michigan is seventh in the nation in scoring defense this season at 14.6 ppg.

The guess is that Iowa will add Davis and get more focused under the scrutiny of the week. Michigan’s front four is going to have to weather that effort and win the line of scrimmage. Coker can overrun the back seven, so having the off-week recently to work on fundamental tackling and shedding blockers came at a good time with excellent results last Saturday against Purdue.

Iowa’s Defense vs. Michigan’s Offense
This is not a vintage Iowa defense. They had four taken in the NFL draft and their lack of week-to-week continuity because of health reasons has rendered them mediocre at best. This team is likely to give up more rushing yards than any other Hawkeye team this century. There is no headliner here like they’ve had in the past with Adrian Clayborn, Chad Greenway, and Pat Angerer. The defense also has a hard time getting off the field, ranking 10th in the Big 10 in defensive 3rd down conversions.

Iowa’s consistency problems begin on the line. They are not getting the same type of pressure in the backfield as they have had in seasons past. They’re 8th in rushing defense and 9th in sacks. In Big Ten play they are giving up nearly 200 rushing yds per game. The defensive front has been ravaged by injuries and attrition during the offseason very similar to the way Michigan’s secondary was last season. Mike Daniels (Sr. #91) and Broderick Binns (Sr. #93) have the most experience and are by far the most productive in making impact plays.

Binns can force the quarterback to make rushed decisions and with Ricky Barnum (Jr. #52) unlikely to play and Taylor Lewan (So. #77) not at 100%, this could be an important match-up. At the same time, it’s been more apparent than ever in the Minnesota loss that the line has a problem slowing down a mobile quarterback.  These two factors more than any could decide the game.

Tackle Tom Nardo (Sr. #87) is expected to be back after missing the last three games to an ankle injury. Nardo was named as the conference’s Co-Defensive Player of the Week in September. Last week the front four played nearly every snap and it showed during the 4th quarter of the Minnesota game. If anything, Nardo can give some of his line mates some rest.

The linebackers are also having difficulties picking up the run and the pass. Again continuity appears to be the reason according to Ferentz. Tyler Nielsen (Sr. #45) has been playing with a broken hand but not as effectively and is moving to MLB, while James Morris (So. #44) is moving to WLB. Morris leads the Big Ten in tackles per game (10.9). Anthony Hitchens (So. #31) may return this week after missing four straight games.

Denard Robinson (Jr. #16) has had a taste of life in Kinnick stadium. He guided Michigan with a limited play structure to a fourth quarter touchdown to give Michigan some life. However, he threw a typical freshman pick late in the game to help seal Iowa’s victory in 2009. Robinson comes into this game with more experience and a bigger playbook, but he’ll face a couple of corners who can just as easily win a jump ball as much as Junior Hemmingway (Sr. #21) , Roy Roundtree (Jr. #12) and  Jeremy Gallon (So. #10).

Micah Hyde (Jr. #18) had a pick against Michigan last year and leads the team in interceptions (3) and in passes defended (9). Shaun Prater (Sr. #28) has forced three fumbles to lead the team and was an All Conference 1st team selection last year, but hasn’t lived up to the expectations this season. Defenses feed off one another and it’s possible that the lack of pressure on the defensive line has made the secondary’s job more difficult. If you know you can achieve a consistent quick pass rush, the secondary can take more chances knowing that quarterbacks don’t have time to execute a stutter or a stop and go. Missed assignments will also have to be cleared up in this group who has two new safeties this season. Iowa is dead last in pass defense this season.

Michigan and Iowa do have something in common, good red zone efficiency. That is until last week. Iowa led the Big Ten failing to score only once in the red zone. Against Minnesota they went 3-6 inside the 20 yard line.

“The one thing we've been doing well is playing well in the red zone offensively and defensively,” said Ferentz. “If you wanted to point one thing out on Saturday where we dropped the ball, that was it.”

As much as we’ve noticed how well Michigan has done offensively in the red zone, it’s important to point out that the defense is #1 in the nation at 59% (13-22).
If some of the enthusiasm for Michigan waned after the MSU loss, a win here should bring it back. This is a game that should allow you to get excited about where the program is. A win here makes a 10 win season very possible and keeps them alive for the division title. Ironically, the Hawkeyes can still win the division with a win. In fact, they along with Nebraska are the two teams that control their own destiny despite Iowa being in fourth place. If the Hawkeyes are able to find a way to win out, they would win the tiebreakers. However unrealistic that may seem, it means the Hawkeyes still have hope and aren’t playing out the string.

Michigan certainly appears to be the better team, but again an optimistic outlook for Iowa was certainly spoiled by losing to Minnesota, meaning we’re probably too hard on them. This is Michigan’s third road game and for six of the eight quarters they’ve already played outside of Michigan stadium, it hasn’t been pretty. Iowa may let teams like Northwestern, Indiana, Minnesota and other big underdogs get the best of them, but it rarely gets out of hand. The ten point loss to Penn State was their largest margin of defeat since losing to…huh…Western Michigan in November 17th, 2007. The average loss in between those games was by 3.6 pts. Expect a close game.

Most Likely Wolverine to Have a Career Game:  Fitzgerald Toussaint
I should have picked Toussaint (So. #28) last week and it’s hard to do better than 170 yards, but this team Hawkeye team can be rushed on and Brady Hoke made it clear that Toussaint earned the starting nod and the bulk of the carries.

Most Likely Hawkeye You’ll Remember After the Game is Over: Coker
If I were writing for MSU next week, I might say Micah Hyde, but Coker’s physicality is going to impress you if you haven’t seen him play. I reserve the right to change it to McNutt after the fact.


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