Michigan-Iowa: Curtain Call

Denard Robinson seen here, outrunning Time itself. - Gregory Shamus

Powered by running back Denard Robinson's (!) virtuoso performance with the ball in his hands and Devin Gardner's continued excellence in his natural position, the Wolverines move to 8-3 with a trip to Columbus next on the schedule. Nebraska's unwillingness to cooperate brings Michigan's divisional chances to almost zero, but, in the week ahead, I get the feeling that most people within the program won't be thinking about Nebraska.

Michigan 42 (8-3), Iowa 17 (4-7)

He didn't throw a pass, but he didn't have to.

After a week of hand-wringing regarding Denard Robinson's status for his (and the other 22 seniors) final game in the Big House, we got the chance to watch him in his purest, crystallized form. No one knows if we've seen the last of Denard Robinson the quarterback, but Denard the runner, the avatar of speed and poetic motion, is very much alive and well.

Hoke had acknowledged the opportunity for a symbolic play or two in order to honor #16, but we did not know what Hoke and Borges had in store beyond that.

On the first play of the game, Denard lined up five yards behind Devin Gardner, the quarterback under center. The noise of the Big House crowd crescendoed, backed by the realization of the moment and its micro- and macroscopic meaning.

On the first play of the game, Denard took a toss sweep to the right side, cutting back before pushing forward for a three-yard gain, like so many Michigan tailbacks had done before. It may not have been the ending that we had all pictured in our minds, but it is perhaps fitting that, given the often incomprehensible nature of college football, the champion of the spread offense took his place among the firmament of Michigan's three yards and a cloud of dust backs in his final outing in Michigan Stadium.

For a brief moment, it seemed as if Michigan had found a modern day Tony Boles in their backfield, only this time he wore the number 16.

The Offense

Michigan scored six touchdowns in as many possessions to start the game. That piece of information in and of itself tells the story of this game, not to mention the wholesale unraveling of this Iowa team since their overtime victory in East Lansing.

Once again, Devin Gardner came out firing, mitigating Michigan fans' concerns about the 2013 offense with each and every laser delivered through a tight window. Gardner went 18/23 on the day for 321 yards and a trio of touchdown passes (he did also throw a pick, but it was late in the game and largely meaningless). For good measure, Gardner also pitched in three touchdown scores on the ground, bringing his total to a whopping six scores on the day, making this one of the most prolific Michigan quarterbacking performances in some time, including the oeuvre of Denard.

After three weeks of the raw, uncut Devin Gardner Experience, one thing is fairly clear: Al Borges is decidedly in his so called "comfort zone" these days, a phrase that he often used to describe the philosophical disconnect that existed when he tried calling an offense for Denard. It seemed that Borges had hit his stride with Denard against Nebraska and Ohio State last season, but a grim offensive performance against Virginia Tech in New Orleans and stretches of difficulties this season proved that that comfort zone had not been indefinitely attained.

Michigan and Iowa traded 10+ play, 70+ yard touchdown drives that took up the bulk of the opening quarter. From that point forward, however, Michigan's defense clamped down and the offense could not be stopped. Borges was clearly having some fun calling this one, even going so far as to borrow something from the Nebraska playbook (which you will probably remember from last season's game in Ann Arbor):

2012 Iowa at Michigan 1st Half (via mgovideo)

Unfortunately this play, Fitzgerald Toussaint's third carry of the game, knocked him out with a fairly gruesome leg injury. Although I have not seen an official word regarding this --and given Hoke's handling of Denard's injury, I doubt we will get one, especially not with a trip to Columbus coming up-- it would seem that we have seen the last of Fitz this season, given that he was carted off the field and had to undergo surgery immediately afterward. Although this is no consolation at all, Fitz was running well before going down, taking three carries for 31 yards, the first sign of life from Michigan's non-QB running game in some time.

After that, Borges called Denard's number and also gave Thomas Rawls some run (8 carries, 22 yards). There is no doubt that, his struggles notwithstanding, losing a player like Toussaint is an unfortunate stroke of bad luck, for Michigan's chances against Ohio State and for Toussaint himself (obviously).

While two of Gardner's outings have come against teams that just aren't very good (Minnesota and Iowa), he has done just about everything perfectly. He's making plays on scrambles by creating time, keeping his eyes downfield to find Roundtree, Gallon and others for big plays. He's putting great zip on every sort of pass you can think of --slants, short to intermediate sideline routes, hash to opposite sideline "THIS GUY MAKE ALL THE THROWS" type passes, etc.-- and doesn't seem to suffer from the constitutional overexcitedness that often plagued Denard in the passing game (especially early on in games, according to Denard himself).

With that said, even if Michigan appears to have entered a new era in quarterbacking, there were still reminders on Saturday that Denard will still be around for a little while longer, doing things that we cannot fully comprehend.

2012 Iowa at Michigan 1st Half (via mgovideo)

The Defense

Iowa's top two receivers coming into the game, Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley, managed only two receptions for a total of seven yards between them. Even worse, Iowa's top target, Davis, accounted for exactly 0% of that production. It's a good thing when you have to double check to make sure that one of your opponent's top skill players actually played (and apparently he did). This is in so small part due to solid coverage from Michigan all day long, but Iowa's offensive philosophy probably plays some role. Greg Davis was content to allow James Vandenberg to dink and dunk to the tight ends underneath while Mark Weisman pounded away on the ground. To be fair, this worked in the early stages of the game; if the Iowa defense could have switched a couple of those Michigan TD drives to three and outs, maybe this is a game that Iowa could have hung around in. Then again, basing this on hypothetical on essentially two solid Iowa drives is some pretty wild extrapolatin'.

Amazingly enough, Vandenberg's touchdown strike in the red zone to tight end Henry Krieger Coble was only Iowa's sixth touchdown pass of the season, of course coming against college football's #1 passing defense (of course). After a promising start to his career (including a 2009 start in Columbus while filling in for Ricky Stanzi, in which he went 20/33 for 231 yards and two TDs in a tough overtime defeat), with many analogizing Vandenberg as Iowa's version of Chad Henne, Vandenberg has regressed quite a bit.

Vandenberg doesn't even make the top 10 list of reasons why Iowa lost this game, as he actually acquitted himself well despite having an underwhelming line, an incredibly unstable situation at tailback (Mark Weisman's exploits notwithstanding) and an offense that is decidedly horizontal. In any case, scoring 10 points through two quarters is not necessarily exceptional, but, on the road against a defense like Michigan's, Iowa did about as well as it could have hoped for. Although the Michigan defense did well, this game was more about the Michigan offense's ability to put this game beyond any sort of doubt by halftime, thereby forcing Iowa to throw the ball farther than 10 yards downfield.

After a decent first half, in which Iowa was able to establish a running game behind the pounding Mark Weisman and even connect on a couple of intermediate routes to its tight ends (namely CJ Fiedorowicz), the Hawkeyes were not able to parlay that success into anything substantial in the second half.

In the third quarter, Iowa only ran six plays, both of its drives of the three and out variety. They managed only 11 yards total in the process; with Michigan's offense gobbling up the rest of the third quarter of play, the Hawkeye offense never really got a serious chance to revisit its earlier success. If the game wasn't over at halftime, it was certainly over by the time the fourth quarter began, with Iowa down 10-42.

Iowa did have some offensive success in the fourth quarter, but given the circumstances it was largely immaterial. Michigan simply took care of business, giving up only 10 points during the portion of the game that actually mattered. Weisman had some success doing his mooseback thing early in the game, but when you check the box score he finished with a modest 63 net yards on 16 carries, good for a mere 3.9 YPC. Of course, it should be noted that Weisman only carried it five times in the second half.

Still, after giving up 132 yards to Marcus Coker last season, this was quite the improvement.

Despite having the likes of Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen last season, the Wolverines got Coker'd big time in Iowa City. This year, with an interior defensive line rotation consisting of Will Campbell, Quinton Washington, Jibreel Black and Ondre Pipkins, the Hawkeyes did not find nearly as much success as they did last year. Yes, Michigan's offense dictated the flow of the game vis-a-vis Iowa's offense, but the fact is that Michigan is just not getting bowled over by teams not named Alabama. If you want to talk about Michigan's defense against option-based offenses (Air Force, Nebraska, Northwestern), that's a different story. Otherwise, Greg Mattison continues to show why he is easily one of the most important college football hires in recent memory.

Special Teams

I mean, we won 42-17. Do you really want me to tell you something about special teams? Okay, fine.

Will Hagerup punted one time. It went a moderate+ distance of 43 yards. So, it's nice to see that he's potentially gotten rid of the case of the shanks that he had against Minnesota.

Michigan didn't do much of anything in the return game, which is fine by me as long as the returners don't cough it up. Especially with the game this Saturday, special teams mistakes could mean doom.

Also, Michigan did allow Iowa to recover an onside kick late in the game, but this is just about the least important thing ever.

Anyway, Michigan continues to not do all that much in the return game save for the occasional darty Norfleet return, but other teams aren't really doing that much against Michigan either. Michigan has to deal with Corey Brown (i.e. "Philly" Brown) on Saturday, who has the ability to take it to the house if there's a bit of space. He took a punt return back 68 yards for a score against Wisconsin this past Saturday.

Miscellaneous Minutiae

  • Seniors. Denard, Kovacs, Roh, Roundtree, Campbell, Smith, Demens, Barnum, Mealer, Omameh, Floyd, and all the others: thank you. Fortunately for everyone involved, these seniors will have a couple more chances to leave their mark in the annals of Michigan football.
  • This week in "Jake Ryan Drinks Your Milkshake, He Drinks It Up!" It was another sort of quiet week for Ryan, although it's not as if Michigan really needed any transcendent individual performances on this day. Ryan tallied 6 total tackles, including a TFL and a forced fumble (that was recovered by Iowa). I do remember one missed tackle on a sack attempt in the first half, but otherwise I didn't notice anything egregious or tremendous upon rewatching the game yesterday. Either way, Michigan will need Ryan to have a big game next week in Columbus. Anyway, Ryan didn't have any eye-popping big plays this week, but the below pass rush against Iowa LT Matt Tobin, with Ryan playing with his hand in the dirt in Michigan's nickel formation, is pretty humorous:

2012 Iowa at Michigan 2nd Half (via mgovideo)

  • James Ross III for Heisman. Okay, not really, but Saturday's 12-tackle performance (nine of them solo) for the freshman is tremendous indeed. I said it last week and I'll say it again: Ross is a guy who can do some things for us next year and beyond. No question, Jim. There will likely be some slippage early on next season as Ross transitions from a zippy situational backer into an every down guy with a bit of additional weight. Once that gets straightened out, Michigan will have a pretty exceptional two-deep at WLB. Michigan got a nice peek into the future on Saturday with Desmond Morgan out for the game. With Ross filling in and Joe Bolden playing a decent bit, the two freshmen were actually Michigan's leading tacklers (Bolden tied with Ryan for second with six tackles).
  • Undefeated. Once again, Michigan finishes the season undefeated at home. If you're keeping track, this means that Michigan has not lost at home in the Brady Hoke era. This is clearly entirely attributable to the awesome, intimidating force that is "In the Big House."
  • Roundtree. On Senior Day, Roy Roundtree pitched in another encouragingly solid performance (5 receptions, 83 yards, TD). After a shaky first couple of months to the season, Roundtree has put up 64, 139 and 83 yards in each of the last three games, respectively. In his last two outings against Northwestern and Iowa, he has reeled in a total of 10 receptions (five in each game) and 222 yards. With respect to the yardage, his output in these games represents 48% of his total receiving yardage for the season. The transition to Devin Gardner at QB has benefited Roundtree more than perhaps any player on the offense. For all of Roundtree's post-RR struggles, this is just about the perfect time for him to regain his old form.
  • SUNSHINEEEEE BULLETS. Once again, your tremendous MGoBlue "Notes" for the week. Here's a good one: after Saturday, Denard became the fourth Wolverine to rush for over 1,000 yards in three different seasons, joining Jamie Morris, Ty Wheatley and Mike Hart in the record books.
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