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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Iowa

October 20, 2010

Other than following the game via ESPN’s Stat Tracker on my phone, I didn’t get a chance to really know what really happened during Saturday’s game until I watched it on DVR on Monday night.  I was hoping that the reasons for the loss would be different and not due to poor red zone performance and turnovers.  At the very least, I had hoped to see a game where Iowa drastically outplayed us.  Instead, much like MSU, we gave this game away….here’s my take on it. 

THE GOOD

  • Kenny Demens – In some countries, the fact that it took until week 7 of the season for Kenny Demens to start would be a jailable offense. I’ll preface this by saying that Demens was by no means perfect on Saturday.  As a first time starter, he certainly had some head scratching plays, and was badly exposed in pass coverage for one of Iowa’s touchdowns.  But he was a HUGE improvement over Obi Ezeh.  And while the stat categories don’t necessarily show a drastic difference, anyone who watched the game can tell you how much better Demens looked.  The biggest difference between Demens and Ezeh is that Demens has linebacker instincts.  While he might not always make the play, he’s usually in the right spot.  Whereas Ezeh is reactive, Demens is a disruption – and you can’t help but notice him on the field.  He  always seems to be around the ball, and he’s just as good of a hitter as Obi is.  Truthfully, its possible that Dick Butkus in his current state would have looked like an improvement over Ezeh at times, but I really liked what I saw from Demens. There will be growing pains with him, but the defense is better with him on the field.
  • Tate Forcier – When Tate sulked on the sideline early in the year, there were two distinct camps of fans that formed.  Those that were willing to write him off, and in fact encouraged him to transfer, and those who realized that even though Denard looked great, we were just an injury away from starting another true freshman at QB and hoped he would get his act together.  Suffice to say, I’m glad it was the latter, and despite the loss on Saturday, I think most fans would agree.   It’s possible Tate will never start another game at Michigan, but just having him as a backup is an incredible luxury, as we saw this weekend.   In just over a half of play, Tate was 17-26 for 239 yards passing, and lead us on 3 scoring drives.  Yes, he threw two picks, one of which was inexcusable.  But he also led a dead team to the brink of a 21 point comeback.  If the defense could have gotten one more stop, he may have pulled it off.  Despite the loss, Tate was everything we had seen last year – a leader, a good passer, and a guy who could points on the scoreboard.  Denard will be back, and he’ll start the rest of the season, as he should.  But knowing Tate can come in and not miss a beat is very important for the next 5 games.
  • The Offense – Sure there were times when the offense struggled on Saturday, but the evidence is too impressive to overlook.  Coming into the game, Iowa was giving up 10 points per game.  We almost tripled that (and would have but for incompetence in the kicking game).  Coming into the game, Iowa was giving up just over 250 yards per game.  We doubled that, going over 500 yards for the game.  And we did it without one of our best receivers (Odoms), our best lineman (Molk) and our “backup” QB for most of the 2nd half.  If anyone had questions about whether or not this offense could succeed against a true “Big Ten” defense, you got your answer on Saturday.  If it wasn’t for 3 turnovers (including one fumble inside the 20) and an ill-timed red zone penalty, we probably would have scored another 14-21 points.  The fact that 10 of the 11 starters on offense return next year should be terrifying for the rest of the Big 10.  We can complain about the defense for hours, but this offense is already on the brink of being among the best in Michigan history.  Rich Rod gets a lot of the credit for this, but so should Calvin McGee.  When Denard got hurt, he changed up the playbook to better suit his pass oriented QB, and ended up with one of the more impressive offensive halves of the year, with 3 scoring drives and almost 300 yards of offense.  I can’t imagine there are too many other teams in the country who can do that. 
  • The Bye Week – In a lot of ways, the bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for Michigan.  We seem to have lost our early season mojo, we have several key players who are a little banged up (Shaw, Martin, Robinson, Molk), and the next game is incredibly important in determining what the rest of the season looks like.  Win against Penn State and we’re bowl eligible, we end the losing streak, and we’ve got momentum going into the final 4 games, all of which are winnable in my estimation.  Additionally, the chance to get guys healthy cannot be underestimated.  The offense moves smoother with Molk at center.  The defense needs Martin as an anchor.  The running game is more explosive with Shaw in the game.  And what D-Rob brings to the table doesn’t need to be explained.  Assuming the players and team can drown out the negative energy (which I’ll get to later), the bye week is a great opportunity to get our ducks in a row for the final 5 game stretch. 
  • 

THE BAD

  • Red Zone Offense – Last week I suggested that our failures in the red zone cost us the game against Michigan State.  Unfortunately, the red zone was our worst enemy again on Saturday.  We ended up in the Iowa red zone 5 times on Saturday, but only came away with 21 points.  While its important that we scored touchdowns when we did, leaving a potential 14 points on the board was the actual difference between winning and losing.  Even if we managed just two field goals, we only would have trailed by 4 when we got the ball back with a couple of minutes to go, and would have had a chance to drive for the win.  In both instances, we had 1st and 10 from inside the 15 and came away with nothing.  You can’t win football games against good defensive teams when you squander chances in the red zone.  It’s just as important as turnovers in my opinion, and its the reason we are 5-2 instead of 7-o right now.  Again, the culprit was both the kicking game and turnovers.  The turnovers will happen from time to time, but the fact that we are now 2-8 on field goals is ridiculous.  Northwestern is the second worse FG unit in the Big Ten, and they are converting over 60% compared to our 25%.  Unless its 4th and greater than 8 or 9, I can’t advocate kicking a field goal unless absolutely necessary.  The risk just doesn’t match the potential reward. 
  • Turnovers – After the 5th game of the season, Michigan had turned the ball over 5 times and had caused 9 turnovers, leading to a turnover margin ranking of approximately 20th out of 120 teams.  In the last two games, Michigan has turned the ball over 7 times, while forcing no turnovers of its own, and our ranking has plummeted to 79th in the country.  Not surprisingly, we’ve lost the last 2 games.  The problems with turnovers are two-fold.  First, sacrificing any opportunity to score is always a lost opportunity for a team, but even more so for this team, that depends on its offense to win games.  Second, turnovers put added pressure on the defense to often times defend a short field.  As you may have noticed, our defense has trouble stopping teams from going 99 yards on a drive (cough cough Indiana), so the closer the opponent is to our end zone, the worse off we are.  While no team is going to be completely turnover free, we have to limit the stupid turnovers – often caused by trying to make something happen even when the smart play is to just throw the ball away, or tuck it away and go down.  The bottom line is this – without turnovers, this offense will allow us to have a shot to win every game.  Iowa and MSU are both perfect examples of that.  But with turnovers, we will struggle to win most of the remaining games on our schedule. 
  • Penalties – As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the penalties are starting to pile up – something that hasn’t been a huge problem the first two years under Rich Rod.  On Saturday, we amassed 8 penalties for 66 yards.  Not a terrible number, but certainly more than you’d like.  When you factor in the timing of some of these penalties though, it was downright devastating.  There were 3 penalties that absolutely killed us on Saturday, and definitely had an impact on the game.  There were other penalties that impacted the game as well, but these 3 penalties were particularly dumb and more importantly, completely unnecessary. 
    • On our second drive of the game, already leading 7-0, Taylor Lewan picked up a personal foul penalty that turned a 2nd and 3 into a 2nd and 16.  Instead likely picking up the first down, we punted two plays later.  Given that we had a lot of success on the first drive, it’s not unreasonable to think we couldn’t have replicated that on the second drive. Instead of a shot to go up 14-0, we punted to Iowa who promptly drove 84 yards to tie up the game. 
    • With the game tied 7-7 and Michigan facing a 3rd and 5 at midfield, Steve Schilling’s false start created a 3rd and 10.  On the next play, Denard Robinson threw an interception.  Again, its possible that the interception may have occurred without the penalty, but the playcalling on 3rd and 10 is presumably different than on 3rd and 5.  Even if we didn’t pick up the first down, we would have had the chance to pin Iowa deep with a punt, rather than letting them take over at midfield after the interception.  Iowa scored the go ahead touchdown 4 plays after this and seized the momentum for most of the first half.
    • After Iowa had taken a 14-7 lead, Michigan drove to the Iowa 15 and had 1st and 10.  A Taylor Lewan false start pushed Michigan back to the 20, and they were unable to pick up a first down.  Instead, Iowa blocked the field goal attempt and then drove on a short field for a touchdown to take a 21-7 lead.   At the very least, the 5 yard penalty made for a tougher field goal attempt.  But it also changed the playcalling and made it tougher to pick up the first down, and perhaps a touchdown.  Had we converted the field goal, this may have just been a blip that cost us 4 points.  Instead, you could argue this was a 14 point swing – more than the difference in the final score. 
    • 

THE UGLY

  • The Bye Week – As I pointed out earlier, there are several benefits to the timing of the bye week for us.  However, there are also several reasons why the bye week couldn’t come at a worse time.  To begin with, coming off of a 2 game losing streak, I’m sure the players want to get back out there and get back on a winning streak rather than waiting another week.  However, the real issue with the bye week is all of the negativity it has drummed up again.  Had we beaten Iowa, a 6-1 Michigan team would have been fawned over this week and next, with articles praising them for being in the thick of the Big Ten race.  With the loss, it’s just the opposite.  All the naysayers have come out of the woodwork again to criticize Rich Rodriguez, and to call for his firing.  Everyone has suggested this is just like last year, and that Michigan will be lucky to win 1 more game.  Nevermind that a win against Penn State would put us at 6-2, the same start we had through 8 games in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2007.  The critics are out in full force, and without a game to shut them up for 2 weeks, will have a full platform to voice their displeasure.   The Penn State game was already an important game for this team, but because of what I believe will be a lot of negative momentum these next two weeks, it’s basically a “must win” game. 
  • Feast or Famine Defense – Iowa had 11 drives on Saturday.  On 5 of them, we held them to three plays and a punt.  On the other six, they scored (five touchdowns and a field goal).  This is a problem that has plagued Michigan defenses the last two seasons.  Either they immediately get off the field, or they let the other team drive the field for a score.  To be fair, 4 of Iowa’s scoring drives started outside of their own 40 yard line, so it was a short field, but even in those instances, Michigan only held for a FG once.   Basically, in instances where Iowa got one first down, they scored 100% of the time.  I wrote about this last year, and hoped it would be the last time I mentioned it, but it seems like it’s a problem again this year.  I’m not sure there is a solution, other than figuring out a way to keep our defense focused even after letting up that initial first down.  
  • Sudden Change – Another disturbing trend I’ve noticed this year is our inability to excel in “sudden change” situations.  Sudden change occurs when the offense turns the ball over, or gives the ball to the other team in an unexpected way (missed field goal, turnover on downs, etc.).  The hope is that the defense will rally knowing that getting a stop after a turnover is even more important than when the other team is backed up deep in its own territory.  That’s the hope.  The reality for this team is that they have been terrible in sudden change situations this season, particularly the last two games.  Against MSU and Iowa, there were 6 “sudden change” opportunities.  In 4 of them, Iowa and MSU went on to score points.  While a couple of these were on short fields, none of them were instances where Iowa and MSU already received the ball in scoring position – there was still a chance to get a stop, and we came up short.  For the season, opponents have scored on 9 of 15 sudden change chances, the majority of which were touchdowns.  If you take out missed field goals and focusing on turnovers (a true “sudden change” situation), our percentage of failure increases to 7 of 10.  In one of Bo Schembechler’s books, he discussed the value of sudden change and how his teams used it as a rallying cry.  Instead of taking the deflated approach, they used sudden change as an opportunity to steal back momentum from the opponent, who may have been riding high because of the turnover.  I can’t recall the exact statistic, but I know for damn sure it wasn’t a 70% failure rate.  This defense isn’t good enough to shut teams out, and as I mentioned above, when the offense puts them in a bad spot with a turnover it’s almost a death sentence.  But even forcing some of these drives into field goals would be a huge victory for the defense.  This is one area where we can significantly improve, and it’s not about physical ability, it’s about mental toughness. 
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