(For more comprehensive views of the game, check out Beauford's full preview, or the preview at mgoblog.)
Do me a favor. Head on down to Ann Arbor Saturday and find a way on to the field so you can ask the best player out there to raise his hand. If you are a die hard Michigan fan who thinks the only thing people do west of the Mississippi is grow corn and stink, the results may surprise you. From a mound of dreadlocks a hand will raise, but that hand will be much too big to belong to our diminutive Denard.
That hand will belong to Adrian Clayborn. And if he speaks, I suggest you listen.
A lot has been written about Clayborn over the past year. Last season he anchored a dominant defense and racked up the kind of stats (70 tackles, 20 TFLs 11.5 sacks, 4 FF) that are good enough to get you 1st team All-Big Ten honors and a seat in Madison Square Garden come the end of April. However, the junior decided to return to
purgatory Iowa City for one last year to continue waging his war of pain and destruction against Big Ten quarterbacks.
Unfortunately when you run away from Clayborn you run right smack into Broderick Binns, the RS-Jr DE who holds down the other side of the line. Binns picked up spot duty as a RS-Fr, and by the next year had improved so much that, to quote BHGP:
"...that when he showed up for fall camp stronger, faster, and ready for full-time duty, Norm Parker moved prototype defensive end [Christian] Ballard to full-time defensive tackle to give Binns a starting spot."
Ballard is no slouch himself on the defensive line, but by moving him inside Iowa was able to get its four best linemen on the field at all times last year. Binns produced just the kinds of numbers you would want from your fourth best linemen: 10 TFLs and 6.5 sacks, as well as an unheard of 9 PBUs.
However, this year Ballard has made the move back out to defensive end this because of the emergence of Mike Daniels at defensive tackle. This gives the Hawkeyes the enviable problem of having too many game changing players for too few positions on the DL. It also means that Ballard and Binns will take snaps at DE, and both are capable of wreaking havoc.
Opposite this dynamic trio of defensive end dominance are the Wolverine offensive tackles. Bachelor number one is a RS-Sr who broke into the starting lineup for a few games in '08 and '09 largely because of injury and an utter lack of depth. While being a serviceable backup the last two years, he was also one half of the running-game-doom that struck the right side of the offensive line until Patrick Omameh refused so sit idly by any longer. Bachelor number one's turn ons are run blocking
Bachelor number two is not only a hulking run blocker with the frame and agility that makes Michigan fans drool as they contemplate the second coming of Jake Long, he also has a sense of humor. Exhibit A:
Who could say no to that face?
His turn ons include tattoos, riding donkeys who think they are linebackers, and play calls that allow him to hulk-smash the defensive end. Bachelor number two is....none other than Taylor Lewan, the next great white hope. Lewan spent his first year on campus getting Barwisized and learning the tricks of the trade before wowing everyone in spring and fall camp, only to then cause mass panic when he did not start at left tackle like everyone predicted. After three games on the bench he finally broke into the starting lineup and seems to have a tight grip on the left tackle position (almost like he does on defensive ends four or five times a game, amirite? But seriously Taylor, stop holding).
Come Saturday I think two things can be reasonably assured. First, the interior of the line should be able to find success against the interior of the Iowa defense. Karl Klug, Mike Daniels, and (occasionally) Christian Ballard are strong DTs, but were there last year as well when Michigan found a way to move the ball. I think it is safe to say 2010 Schilling > '09 Schilling, Molk >>> Moosman, and Omameh > Huyge, although the emergence of Daniels into a force at DT will even out any gains made by the Wolverines inside. These three have spent the entire year mauling people, scooping and sealing defensive tackles into bolivian, and tossing linebackers around like they were rag dolls. There will be struggles and disruptions, but overall this unit should be able to execute unless it takes a major step back Saturday (fingers crossed).
Second, I think it is a reasonable assumption that the Wolverine tackles will be unable to stop Iowa's defensive ends. The hope is that Lewan and Dorrestein can find a way to slow down these three exceptional DEs enough to allow the run game to work. While Dorrestein has been solid this year, his performances against competition not named Bowling Green or UMass have left a little to be desired. According to mgoblog's UFR, Dorrestein has racked up a +5 against UConn's undersized DEs, a +4 against Notre Dame, a -2 against Indiana's pu pu platter of DEs, and a half point against MSU. None of this is bad, but it doesn't scream "Outland Award" either. Now Dorrestein will be going up against defensive ends in Ballard and Binns who would unquestionably be starters on any one of the six teams Michigan has faced so far this year. This leaves Taylor Lewan
Fortunately for the Wolverines, the offense can effectively isolate and expose a defensive end when run properly. Denard Robinson has done well running the zone read so far this year, and that play just happens to prey on....the backside defensive end. While I think this can work, I also wouldn't be surprised to see Adrian Clayborn run down a running back from behind a couple of times after forcing the handoff. Dude is quick. However, you can only run away from one defensive end at a time, and if the tackle on the front side cannot get a good seal on the end, it will be a long day for the running backs.
Also, because of the athleticism and skill at DE, Iowa has more options on defense than other teams Michigan has faced this year. Where Notre Dame used the strategy of stopping everyone but Denard (ask Brian Kelly how that one worked out), Michigan State took the opposite approach and sold the farm to keep contain. Pat Narduzzi spent the afternoon blitzing his outside linebackers to assist his DE's (who always stayed home on the backside) with keeping Denard in the middle of the field where Jones, Tredwell, and Worthy could track him down. While this tactic frustrated Robinson and caused some erratic throws, it also opened up a number of options that the Wolverine offense simply failed to capitalize on. One exception is the Webb TD, beautifully picture paged by BWS. Iowa's defensive ends are an upgrade from what MSU rolled out last week, and if they are able to keep contain on the backside and get through blocks on the frontside without the aide of the outside linebackers, it will allow Iowa's back seven much more freedom to cover the passing game and clean up on run plays. (Note: for more on MSU's strategy against the UM offense, see mgoblog.)
Lastly, any success against the run could force the Wolverines into a more pass heavy offense. When the Spartans jumped up by a couple scores last week, Rodriguez quickly abandoned the running backs and went to the "Denard show" section of the playbook that works wonderfully when you are running against the Indiana B-team, but not so well when MSU spends the week showing Denard highlights to its front seven "A Clockwork Orange" style. If the Wolverine offense is forced to go one-dimensional against a great Iowa pass rush, Robinson will have a long game ahead of him. A very average Spartan pass rush was able to get into the backfield against the Wolverines and record the second sack on Robinson this season, as well as a few QB hurries. Dorrestein has never been known as a dominant pass blocker and Adrian Clayborn has forgotten more about pass rushing than Taylor Lewan has ever learned.
Michigan State taught us last week that if you can keep Denard Robinson contained in the middle of the field you will have a better chance to slow him down and force him to beat you with his arm. No team is better equipped to do that at the defensive end position than Iowa (and quite possibly OSU, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it). If Clayborn, Ballard, and Binns can shake blocks on the front side of run plays and not allow Denard Robinson to turn the corner, the Wolverine offense will be DOA.
Looking at Iowa's defensive numbers so far this year, that's just how Adrian and the gang like it.