Iowa is in much better shape at this time than it was last year through ten games. What has been the biggest difference between the 2012 and 2013 versions of Iowa's football team?
I'm not sure there's one particular thing that has changed to account for Iowa's resurgence. A full offseason to implement Greg Davis' offense certainly hasn't hurt, nor has the decision to bring in his hand-picked wide receivers coach to teach the option routes at its heart. The decision to ditch a couple of underperforming assistant coaches certainly didn't hurt, and Iowa has stayed relatively injury-free.
More than anything, though, it's a year of experience on the offensive line and in the defensive front seven. On the defensive line in 2012, Iowa had to resort to the sort of fifth-year roster fillers that normally finishes out their careers in anonymity. Those guys are gone, and in their place are some true asskickers of the first order. It's the best Iowa defensive line since 2010, which had four guys still in the League, and the three senior linebackers might be even better. On the offensive line, Ferentz brought back a pair of tackles, a promising sophomore guard who moved to center, and a four-star guard getting his first chance. They've performed as expected, which has been enough to keep the offense from turning putrid most weeks. And that's all the Ferentz really wants.
Iowa is just about average offensively in the Big Ten. With Greg Davis running the show I would have never thought this was possible? How do you like Iowa's offense against a Michigan defense that has been good at limiting big plays and forcing teams to execute 10+ play drives to score?
It's actually a perfect matchup for Iowa: An offense incapable of btreaking big plays against a defense geared to stop them. By the time that Saturday's game rolls around, it will have been more than a month since Iowa ran a scoring play of more than 25 yards. Iowa won two of those three games, and it's not been much different for most of the rest of the season
I am more concerned with Michigan's success against the run. Teams that have taken away the run have left Iowa without much else to do. The passing game really only works when set up through the run -- Iowa doesn't have the playmakers on the outside to go one-on-one against secondaries unless they're pulled out of position by the running game -- and, even if it did, Ferentz would keep running for the intrinsic value of it, thereby leaving us in 3rd and 8 every fourth play.
Michigan's offense - led by probably the most hated man in the state, Al Borges - has spent large portions of the year moving backward in big chunks. Michigan has given up the most tackles for loss of any team in the nation. What Iowa players should Michigan be most worried about making plays in the backfield?
Iowa doesn't have much for a contemporary four-man pass rush, in that the defensive ends are big block-swallowing run stuffers. If there's a danger on the front four, it's at tackle, where Louis Trinca-Pasat and Carl Davis have excelled this year. LTP has six tackles for loss, which doesn't seem like much until you realize that represents one quarter of his tackles for the season. Big Carl doesn't have the same numbers, but he's been disruptive all year.
Also, Iowa is relying on the blitz more than it has in a decade. Don't be surprised to see outside linebacker Christian Kirksey and middle linebacker James Morris in the backfield, especially if Iowa can force Michigan into 3rd and long. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has especially liked to run an alignment with additional pass rushers, including defensive end Nate Meier and freshman linebacker Reggie Spearman, at the ends in passing situations.
With that said, Ferentz defensive dogma dictates that any running threat at quarterback be completely contained between the tackles above all else, and I don't see them abandoning that against Gardner unless the down and distance is completely prohibitive to a scramble. It was a disaster against Michigan last year. But, then again, this isn't last year's Michigan offense by any stretch.
Last year Iowa's secondary got burnt up by Michigan's passing offense, and with some talented weapons to throw to, can Iowa make plays if and when Devin Gardner gets passes off?
Therein lies the problem for Iowa: Can the defensive front bring enough of a rush before the secondary, which has been solid against the run but susceptible to big plays at inopportune times, gets torched? Parker's a longtime secondary coach (and former MSU safety), and he again took over the Iowa secondary after the staff shake-up. It's certainly better than last season, but whether it's good enough to stand up against Michigan's weapons at receiver is another question entirely. If Gardner has all day to throw, he can target Iowa's most suspect position group -- the safeties -- and have another career day.
Michigan's run defense is 10th nationally in yards/carry allowed. How do you think Iowa and Mark Weisman manage against this stout run defense?
Those are basically two questions at this point. Iowa runs its typical zone scheme. As the good and honorable Lloyd Carr fans among you know, the zone requires one-cut running: Unless you can seal the edge with your line, the back needs to be able to find the crease, cut, and accelerate through it. Further, if the defensive line overcommits to the outside, the line is to use their momentum to take them to the sideline and open the cutback lane to the center of the field.
Weisman is, essentially, a zero-cut runner in a one-cut scheme. Early in the season, teams tried to go man-to-man with Iowa's offensive line and lost repeatedly, leaving giant holes off-tackle for the Hebrew Hammer. He took advantage. Things were good. That all changed when Michigan State actually took time to study some tape and realized that, if it shifted and slanted to the strong side of the formation (especially when Iowa sent a tight end in motion across the formation prior to the snap), that Weisman could not effectively cut back before the cavalry arrived, and would just run into the line. It took Iowa nearly three weeks to figure that out, and the other options -- Damon Bullock and Leshun Daniels -- weren't much better. Iowa turned to little-used scatback Jordan Canzeri against Purdue two weeks ago, and EUREKA the cutback was there. The Weisman boomlet has largely been schemed out of existence by now, but it looks like Iowa's run game might survive after all.
Obviously, Michigan's defense is better than Purdue's, and I fully expect Mattison to comprehend that Iowa's run game with Canzeri is a different monster than it is with any of its other running backs and plan accordingly. But I'm much more optimistic than I was three weeks ago that Iowa can run effectively on pretty much everyone not named Sparty.
What do you think are the keys to an Iowa win, and what is your game prediction?
Famed Iowa beat writer Marc Morehouse made an observation earlier this year: Kirk Ferentz bristles against the Big Ten bluebloods far more than he does against traditional Iowa rivals like Iowa State and Minnesota. There's a chip on the shoulder of the good Iowa teams, formed by those days and weeks spent pining for an offer from the Ohio States and Michigans that never came. He gets up for these games, and he gets his team up for these games, and he gameplans like an sonuvabitch for them. Proof positive: Iowa, which hasn't added a new running play to the offense since 2001, took an earlier bye week to install the Full Stanford in preparation for Ohio State and damn near took down the Buckeyes in the Horseshoe with trip tight ends ad infinitum.
Two weeks later, Wisconsin came into Kinnick Stadium and faced an Iowa team whose offensive gameplan was "dear God, don't turn the ball over," an embarassing return to the old style of protecting the defense by running really slow three-and-outs and punting deep. That team was never going to win a game against an athletically superior opponent.
Iowa just had a bye week to prepare for Michigan, and Michigan's one of those opponents for Iowa. I think we'll know all we need to know in the first two offensive series. If Iowa looks good -- if the offense is getting to the line quickly, executing the basics effectively, and protecting Rudock -- Iowa wins this game fairly convincingly. But if Iowa looks at the inept Michigan offense and convinces itself that the Wisconsin game plan will work, it's going to end badly. Against anyone else, I'd bet on the latter, if only because it's truly Kirk Ferentz's idea of proper football to get into a punt-off with Brady Hoke and Al Borges. But with the bye and the fire in the belly that comes with a game against Michigan, I'll take my chances on the former. Iowa wins 27-13.