After Michigan’s 52-0 victory over Rutgers last weekend, newspapers (or, more appropriately, sites across the Internet) were full of stories about how the soul-searching, reflection and introspection done by Michigan after its humbling loss to Wisconsin the week prior led to its revival against Rutgers. Indeed, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh admitted that the Wolverines needed to put in, “more work, more effort.” More specifically, Harbaugh said Michigan and its coaches needed to develop a better, “understanding of (how to) put our players in a position that they could be successful.”
Mission accomplished. Michigan, which struggled to get anything going offensively against Wisconsin the week before, scored touchdowns on seven of its 11 possessions against Rutgers. How one-sided was the game? Michigan rolled up 476 yards of total offense while holding Rutgers to 152. Put another way, Michigan had nearly as many touchdown drives (seven) as Rutgers had first downs (ten).
Of particular significance for Michigan was that the Wolverines seemed to find – and utilize – their passing game. Michigan’s offensive line gave quarterback Shea Patterson the time he needed, and with that time, Patterson was able to pick apart the Rutgers defense. Patterson completed 17 of 23 passes for 276 yards, and while not exactly throwing the ball all over the field, Patterson directed a pass-first attack that found Ronnie Bell, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nick Eubanks and Nico Collins for multiple receptions apiece. What’s more, Patterson looked comfortable all afternoon, and as did sophomore Joe Milton, who relieved Patterson late in the third quarter and finished the game.
Last week’s performance comes with a caveat, however, and it’s a rather large caveat at that: It came against Rutgers. The loss was Rutgers’ 14th consecutive conference loss and ran its conference point differential this season to 82-0 (after two games). The shutout also proved to be the final straw in the ouster of coach Chris Ash, who was relieved of his coaching duties shortly after Saturday’s game. The Rutgers factor was so prevalent, that when Michigan’s players met the press after the game, invariably, the questioning began with some form of, “Granted, it was only Rutgers, but…”
And there’s the rub. Because with apologies to
Chris Ash Nunzio Campanile and his charges, the Scarlet Knights are simply not a reliable measuring stick against which to measure Michigan.
Michigan did clean things up against Rutgers. And the Wolverines looked like they had an offensive strategy, or at least more of one than they displayed against Army or Wisconsin. But a bigger concern for Michigan, one that was fully exploited by Wisconsin, is at the point of attack. Because the most eye-opening takeaway from Michigan’s lop-sided loss to Wisconsin was how thoroughly the Badgers manhandled Michigan on both sides of the line of scrimmage. If Michigan hopes to turn its season around, it has to start in the trenches.
Michigan played better up front against Rutgers, but was its performance the result of fine tuning its blocking schemes on offense and practicing more disciplined gap integrity on defense? Or were the Wolverines simply able to physically overpower an inferior opponent? That question wasn’t answered against Rutgers, but for those looking for an answer, it shouldn’t take long to get one with the Wolverines hosting Iowa this weekend.
The undefeated and 14th ranked Hawkeyes are led by a senior quarterback who’s playing at a high level, a talented receiving corps and a playmaking secondary. All of this makes Iowa tough to beat. But what’s more important, or at least will be more revealing with respect to Michigan, is that Iowa, as usual, is strong up front on both sides of the ball.
Iowa’s running game will challenge Michigan. Behind a mostly-experienced line that’s especially strong on the edges (Iowa could have the best tackle-tandem Michigan will face this season) and featuring a trio of productive running backs led by junior Mekhi Sargent, the Hawkeyes are rushing for more than five yards a carry this season. On defense, the Hawkeyes are equally stout. All-American candidate A. J. Epenesa heads a strong front seven that, for its part, holds opponents to fewer than 80 yards per game on the ground. The bottom line: Iowa is a tough, physical team. A team cut from the same cloth as the one that physically dominated Michigan in Madison two weeks ago.
It’s a long season, and it’s still early. Michigan is adapting to new personnel on defense and a new scheme on offense. To borrow a phrase from its head coach, Michigan will likely be “working through some things” throughout the season. And as the season progresses, the Wolverines will likely continue to improve.
But improvement has its limits. People need to stop talking about the season finale against Ohio State, because the Buckeyes continue to prove they are a level above the rest of the Big Ten. But what about Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan State? Will the Wolverines be competitive in these games? Their performance against Iowa this weekend will go a long way toward answering that question.