Michigan took a +4 turnover margin in the fourth quarter; unfortunately, that margin was not much larger than Michigan's lead at that point (7).
When a game goes that way, the first turnover for the Wolverines would likely be the one that ended them.
Down 24-21 with 6:02 to play, Michigan needed to scrape together just enough offense --not someone searching their pockets for loose change to feed the meter-- and for a little while it seemed they were headed for a field goal attempt, at minimum. Michigan's first five drives of the second half yielded a net of six yards of offense, good for an average of 1.2 YPD (yes, yards per drive).
As of the end of Saturday's game, Michigan sits at 100th in the nation in rushing offense, just behind Ohio, Idaho, Vanderbilt and 2-9 Iowa State. Each running play is well-intentioned but doomed to fail, just like 95 percent of all attempts to read Ulysses.
But, despite the offense's ongoing struggles, as is often the case, with the pressure on, Michigan slowly but surely found itself on the move with a chance to tie or even take the lead late in the game. Devin Gardner completed a quick 3rd & 8 pass to Jeremy Jackson (of all people) in the middle of the field for 18 yards to get to midfield. A screen pass to Fitzgerald Toussaint moved Michigan 13 yards more.
Situated at the Iowa 38, Michigan ostensibly needed just one more first down to get into Brendan Gibbons' field goal range.
Two plays later, Gardner tucked it and ran down the left side on 2nd & 11, picking up eight yards before coughing up the football. Given the number and sheer force of the hits Gardner has taken in recent weeks and his resulting lack of burst, it's no wonder that sparks didn't issue from his cleats or that nuts and bolts didn't start flying out of his helmet's ear holes with a dramatic, cartoonish racket.
Gardner has been far from perfect. Instead of tossing head-scratching interceptions, as he did earlier in the season, Gardner has taken it upon himself (ostensibly at the coaches' direction, to some extent*) to tuck it and simply take the hits, whether out of sheer conservatism or an inability to maneuver in the pocket effectively. Either way, the effect on the offense is about even, all things considered.
Part of the problem is that Michigan really only has two respectable receiving targets at this point. Cover even just one of either Jeremy Gallon or Devin Funchess and the odds are pretty good that Gardner is taking a sack or scrambling for a minimal gain capped by another bruising hit. To make matters worse, drops were an issue for the second week in a row. Simply put, while Gardner does not seem to be making decisions as quickly as Michigan would like, it often seems as if his hesitation is just the crippling realization that there is nothing he can do, unless throwing the ball into the stands 10-15 times a game is something worth considering.
For those who simply want to run Gardner into oblivion, his current inability to make much of an impact with his legs speaks to the heavy toll of each hit, accumulating and weighing on his psyche like a layer of sedimentary rock. Gardner is not Denard Robinson or Vince Young with the ball in his hands, but he's far more dynamic than he's shown the last few weeks. It will be surprising to no one when Gardner's playmaking ability with his feet magically returns next September after a long offseason spent in an ice bath.
The running game, of course, continues on as it has been. The fact that Derrick Green's 79 yards on 19 carries against Northwestern last week was met with even moderate positivity tells you all you need to know. Against the Hawkeyes, Green ran for just 23 yards on 11 carries, with a long of nine yards. Toussaint, who did not figure into the Northwestern game at all, returned to carry the ball six times for 12 yards.
Michigan's offense does nothing well. The interior offensive line is in fact worse than last year, contrary to the accepted offseason consensus that it couldn't get worse. Michigan has just two perimeter threats in Gallon and Funchess. Gardner has fully entered shell shock mode.
Of course, Micihgan's struggles are not all on the players. I've said this after every loss and I'll say it one more time: I've never been one to say that so and so needs to be fired, but I don't know how Michigan can head into 2014 without any coaching turnover.
This current Michigan offense is not quite as talented as people would like to think, but it is, one would think, good enough to at least reach the rarefied air of sweet mediocrity.
*But, really, who knows?
Defensively, Michigan did not play its best game. With that said, they gave up seven points in the first half, points which came as a result of a short field (Iowa's drive started in Michigan territory). Additionally, the Michigan defense scored points itself when Jake Ryan walloped Jake Rudock, allowed Brennen Beyer to catch a fluttering pass and take it back for six.
With a 21-7 lead at the half, the game was then on the offense to do something, anything, to preserve that lead. Even truly elite defenses cannot cover for an offense as inept as Michigan's has been.
Then, Michigan gave up the quick strike 55-yard score to start the second half, an uncharacteristic breakdown but one that will happen in a post-Kovacs world.
The Michigan defense then put the clamps down on Iowa's offense for most of the rest of the 3rd quarter. However, with solid field position once again, the Hawkeyes went 60 yards for the game-tying score, capped by an impressive pounding run by Mark Weisman.
Another Michigan three-and-out, losing four yards in the process, seemed to be the breaking point for the Michigan defense. Following a couple of Rudock passes to Tevaun Smith, Iowa pounded its way to the Michigan 15 via a combination of Weisman and Jordan Canzeri. The floodgates seemed to be wide open. Fortunately for the Wolverines, Frank Clark and Jarrod Wilson combined for a big play, tackling Weisman for a loss of one on 3rd & 2 and forcing an Iowa field goal.
Unfortunately for Michigan, that last bit of defensive gallantry was for naught, and what was another encouraging game for players like Frank Clark and Willie Henry --as well as Jake Ryan's first big game since his return-- will be forgotten amid the consternation about the offense.
I'm sure the comparison has been made enough times to strip it of its novelty, but the close of this season is very 2010-esque. Both this team and that one started 7-3. We know what happened in 2010; barring a miracle, Michigan is likely headed for 7-5, with a victory in a bowl game seeming unlikely, even without knowing the opponent.
Michigan returns quite a bit next season, on both sides of the ball. Most importantly, however, with the offensive line losing both Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, have the young linemen taken the hard knocks they needed to take in order to form an at least average group next season? I'm not so sure.
Whether Devin Gardner can return to being the quarterback he often was at during the end of the 2012 season and earlier this season against Notre Dame will hinge largely on those young linemen's improvement.
An offensive line composed of so many freshmen and redshirt freshmen is bound to improve, perhaps more than any other position group with similar inexperience. The problem for Michigan, however, is that it's difficult to predict a similar uptick in the efficacy of Michigan's offensive play calling.
Even with a better offensive line (which, with the aforementioned departures, is far from a certainty), a rejuvenated and less skittish Devin Gardner, the return of Amara Darboh and Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith in their second year in the program, it's hard to say whether or not Al Borges can figure out a way to chisel out a cohesive offense from this slab of raw materials.
Questioning the offensive coordinator's decisions is an American tradition, on both Saturdays and Sundays. But, it has always been a tricky, uncomfortably navigated thing; identifying the source of an offense's struggles is not unlike attempting to make your way through a labyrinth with your eyes closed.
Sometimes a play doesn't work because somebody didn't execute. A lineman missed his assignment. A receiver drops a catchable ball. The quarterback overthrows a wide open target.
Other times, the defense just makes a good play, whether by sheer ability, mental preparation or the ability to quickly react to an opponent's counters to the defense's counters.
Then, there are other situations in which the man in charge of the offense does not call plays likely to succeed.
As a layman, it's often difficult to tell which hypothesis is closest to the truth on a given play. Even so, anybody can tell that whatever the offense is right now, it is not working. Even mere signs of improvement as the season moved along would have been enough to quell at least some of the concern regarding Borges' future at Michigan.
Steady improvement within a season is not an impossible task: just look to East Lansing, where an offense that was even worse than Michigan's currently is back when the season started has transformed itself into an unit a shade or two above adequate.
In any case, before the issue of coaching turnover can be appropriately addressed --whatever one's opinion on that may be-- Michigan has to take the field one more time this regular season, likely in front of a Big House crowd with wide swathes of scarlet.
The history of this rivalry is full of upsets. Recent history, however, suggests that Michigan's chances at a surprise victory this Saturday are remote.
But, as odd as it is to say, Michigan's problems are far bigger than a single loss to Ohio State, which under ordinary circumstances would be the biggest problem of all. No matter what happens this Saturday (and in Michigan's bowl game), the program is in for its most important offseason since the one following the 2009 season.