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Defense Carries the Day for Michigan

Michigan knocked Iowa from the ranks of the unbeaten, but all is not well in Ann Arbor.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Iowa at Michigan

For those who subscribe to the “Glass Half Full” school of thought, a win is a win. And win is what Michigan did Saturday, prevailing in a slugfest against Iowa by a score of 10-3. It wasn’t pretty, in fact, far from it, but led by suffocating defense, the Wolverines got the much-needed victory.

Michigan’s victory over Iowa was not for nothing. Iowa is a tough, physical team, cut from the same cloth as the Wisconsin team that bludgeoned Michigan two weeks ago. Michigan needed to show that it could, in the words of center Cesar Ruiz, win a dogfight. So in that respect, Michigan needed this win for its collective state of mind as much as for maintaining any hopes it has of challenging for a conference championship. Michigan had to show that it could “win ugly.” And win ugly, it did.

After the game, Michigan linebacker Khaleke Hudson said that the key was stopping the run. “We knew they (Iowa) were going to try to run the ball down out throat,” Hudson said, “and we knew that we’d have to stop it.” Stop it, Michigan did. Disregarding sacks, Michigan held the Hawkeyes to 66 yards on 22 carries. That against a Hawkeye team that was averaging over 200 yards a game on the ground. Factoring sacks into the equation (of which Michigan had eight), Michigan held Iowa to a single yard rushing.

In stifling Iowa’s rushing attack, Michigan proved it had the wherewithal to hold up against a tough, physical offensive line – something that was questioned after the Wisconsin game. But Michigan did more than just hold up against the run, the Wolverines also made life difficult for quarterback Nate Stanley. Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown made sure the Wolverine defense knew that Stanley hadn’t been sacked often and hadn’t been intercepted all year. Hudson said that Brown challenged the Wolverines to get two interceptions. “And we got three,” a smiling Hudson finished.

It was as good as Michigan has looked defensively all season. “A masterpiece,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called it, and it’s hard to argue with him. But there are two sides to Saturday’s game, and Michigan’s offensive performance was about as far away from being considered a masterpiece as you could imagine.

How badly did Michigan struggle offensively? Of its 13 drives on the day, only three accounted for more than 25 yards. To put it another way, after Michigan jumped to a 10-0 lead midway through the first quarter, its next ten drives resulted in seven punts, two missed field goals and a turnover. In a game where a second touchdown was all that was needed to put the game out of reach, Michigan’s offense couldn’t comply. As such, the game came down to the wire, and Michigan’s defense was forced to make one final stop to secure the victory.

I could cite a myriad of additional statistics to illustrates Michigan’s offensive woes, but it would only make light of the issue. And Michigan’s offense is no laughing matter. Journalist John U. Bacon, someone who is as familiar with Michigan and Big Ten football as anyone, commented, “I don’t know what Michigan OC Josh Gattis had in mind when he took over UM’s offense, but pretty sure this wasn’t it.” It’s hard to imagine it was.

After the game, Harbaugh insisted that the offense was, “hitting its stride.” That’s all well in good, but Harbaugh – along with anyone who watched Saturday’s game – knows that’s not the case. Statistics aside, the eye test tells you that this offense is not working. Quarterback Shea Patterson has fielded his share of criticism for Michigan’s recent performances, but while Patterson hardly had a productive day Saturday, to place the blame solely at his feet would be unwarranted. There are other, more pervasive factors at work.

Foremost of which, Michigan’s playcalling can be downright baffling at times. In particular, Michigan’s continued insistence on ignoring its trio of game-breaking wide receivers. Michigan’s sole touchdown drive on the day was greatly aided by a 51-yard bomb to junior Nico Collins. After the 6’4” Collins corralled what was more or less a jump ball to put the Wolverines in position to score, Michigan barely looked his way again. Michigan similarly underutilized receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black, who combined for five catches and 46 yards. Michigan ended the day with a paltry 14 completions for 147 yards. Hardly the wide-open attack that was promised.

But if you watched the game closely, it’s more than just playcalling that hampered the Wolverines. Watching the action from up high, watching the plays as they develop, it becomes clear that Michigan’s receivers aren’t often put into positions in which they’re able find open space. After the Wisconsin game, Harbaugh said that Michigan and its coaches needed to develop a better, “understanding of (how to) put our players in a position that they could be successful.” Based on Saturday’s performance, there is still a lot of work to do on that front.

Michigan has shown very little “speed in space” thus far. Instead, we’re seeing an offense that’s downright offensive. I wrote before the season that, first-time playcaller or not, “there is simply too much talent on offense for things to go south (for Michigan).” Five weeks into the season, and it looks like I stand corrected.

Harbaugh brought in Gattis and his “Pro Spread” offense because he wanted his Wolverines to take the next step. He wanted to be able to score in bunches. Five games into the season, and Michigan not only can’t score in bunches, it has difficulty scoring at all. If that doesn’t change quickly, with games against Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan State on the horizon, Michigan’s season could get real ugly, real fast.

Special thanks to David Shushtari, the world’s foremost expert on Michigan football.