It’s Not Over Yet

All in all, Michigan should count themselves lucky, as their loss may not even matter in the long run.  With both Clemson and Washington falling as well to unranked opponents, Michigan’s chances of making it back to playoff contention still remain strong.

Amongst the volatility and unpredictable nature of the College Football Playoff rankings, Michigan’s primetime matchup against the Hawkeyes presented a crucial test.  Win, and Harbaugh’s surging Wolverines prove their worth as not only the best defense, but remain in the conversation as best team in the country, challenging the near-unshatterable glass ceiling of the Crimson Tide.

But they failed.  Be it through sloppy play, lackluster offensive production, or an inability to shut down the run, they failed in their second major road test of the year, eliminating hopes of a perfect season and keeping both Ohio State and Penn State in contention for the Big Ten East Championship.

While nobody likes to see a loss, our present scenario is far less dire than many might believe.  Michigan remains the likely favorite to win the Big Ten, given they win out the remainder of the year.  However, for such an endeavor to become possible, Harbaugh and his Wolverines have some work to do before taking on the Buckeyes in Columbus.

It all begins with defense.  Michigan thrives on an explosive and relentless defensive front to squash opponents into submission, all the while creating more opportunities for the offense to capitalize.  This strategy had worked up until now, with the Wolverines quickly becoming the best overall defensive unit by the numbers.  Allowing only around 244 yards per game — an NCAA best — combined with a 3rd down conversion rate under twenty percent, defensive coordinator Don Brown looked to continue his unit’s successes.

Unfortunately, Akrum Wadley happened.  A junior from New Jersey, Wadley exploded late for Iowa from behind the line, dashing and dancing his way around Michigan defenders with ease.  While never reaching the end zone, Wadley averaged five yards per carry, garnering 115 yards in total — his third best performance on the season.  His explosiveness and versatility kept the Hawkeyes in a threatening position throughout the game.

On the other hand, Michigan’s attempt at a run game was miserable at best.  De’Veon Smith, who bore the largest workload behind center, managed to average only 2.3 yards per carry, adding up to a whopping 28 yards.  Throughout the game, Smith never really seemed to find his rhythm.  Rather than pushing through the defensive line, Smith opted to dance his way around blocks in hopes of taking off for a big play.  Despite his best efforts, the strategy clearly did not pay off, and even resulted in a safety early in the game.

Of course, Smith’s struggles were not solely his own.  Offensively, Michigan struggled to find any sense of cohesion or synergy.  Quarterback Wilton Speight, who had quite an impressive string of games prior, struggled to connect with his receivers, completing only 11 of his 26 passes.  Notably, many of Speight’s greatest opportunities were squandered by both overthrown and underthrown passes, keeping him without a touchdown.

Iowa’s defensive unit came out on fire and ready to play, quickly outmatching the offensive line for Michigan.  Throughout the season, I’ve been blown away by Speight’s ability to evade tacklers, despite his massive stature at 6’6” and over 220 pounds.  Against Iowa, these talents couldn’t make up for a lackluster offensive line, allowing pressure to force inaccurate passes and even resulting in two sacks at times.

Primetime football clearly did not treat the Wolverines well this time around; however, losses are far from an excuse for teams to fold on themselves and give up, as tight end Jake Butt noted in a post game interview.

“We just have to look in the mirror and look at the film and become better because of this,” he remarked.  “There’s really no excuse, there’s absolutely no excuse.”

He’s absolutely correct; going forward, Harbaugh’s coaching staff will need to make some tactical adjustments to both their execution and discipline in order to have a chance at winning out.  While it’s unfortunate to lose a game in which you’re so heavily favored to win, such losses provide the critical information and experience necessary to improve and finish when it really counts — the postseason.

First and foremost, this loss taught Michigan that Jabrill Peppers is, in fact, human, and cannot do everything on offense.  Oftentimes, it seems Coach Harbaugh puts Peppers out on the field when the offense is struggling and in need of a “boost” of sorts — something to get the ball moving and the team on the right track again.  Against Iowa, this strategy failed to provide that crucial “spark.”  Peppers was restrained in all aspects of his game, failing to record any breakaway runs, and kept to a modest five tackles.  Worst of all, his punt return game was severely limited, as he only took one punt return further than fifteen yards.

Secondly, Michigan needs to seriously rethink its situation at running back.  De’Veon Smith, despite his veteran status and clear leadership potential, simply hasn’t put up the numbers he needs to.  On the other hand, backups Chris Evans and Ty Isaac have shown incredible potential.  Against Iowa, Evans average a team high 6.5 yards per carry, adding on to his 508 yard season rushing total.  Isaac himself has over 440 yards on the year, albeit only running for seven against the Hawkeyes.  My question is simple: why not use these talented athletes more?  Both are clearly effective, viable options with vastly untapped talent.  Better yet, they probably would have dove forward in the end zone to avoid a safety.

On the defensive side of things, Michigan failed not only to contain the run, but to mount any sort of pressure on Iowa’s quarterback.  Harbaugh, rightfully so, holds a strong sense of trust in his linebackers and defensive backs, opting to run zone coverage instead of blitz packages in a majority of situations.  However, this strategy doesn’t work when an opposing running back simply dances his way around your best efforts, as commentator Kirk Herbstreit noted of Iowa’s Wadley on multiple occasions.  Even when the Wolverines sent the house, it seemed they couldn’t reach the quarterback in time.  During a critical possession near the end of the half, Iowa held the ball at the Michigan five-yard line.  On fourth down, Iowa opted to go for the touchdown, and was greeted in response with a strong blitz on all sides.  It too failed, as Iowa managed a quick throw into the end zone.  Looking forward, Michigan’s front four will need to find a way to reach the quarterback, cause more rushed throws, and hopefully lead to game-changing turnovers.

Finally, speaking of turnovers, Michigan had far too many of them.  While two may seem small at first, it’s important to note how much of an impact they had, as they disrupted an offense already struggling to find rhythm and placing even more pressure on the defense to perform.  Most egregious was a fumble committed by safety Delano Hill to begin the second half, giving the Hawkeyes the ball in Michigan territory after bringing the game within two shortly before.  Such a momentum shift is devastating, and cannot be allowed to happen.  Hopefully, a week of hard practice will instill discipline and attentiveness to the Wolverines, eliminating the risk of avoidable mistakes.

All in all, Michigan should count themselves lucky, as their loss may not even matter in the long run.  With both Clemson and Washington falling as well to unranked opponents, Michigan’s chances of making it back to playoff contention still remain strong.  Currently, Michigan sits at 4th in the AP Poll, with their ranking in the CFP poll to come on Tuesday.  In their current position, the Wolverines’ goal still remains the same — win out, which includes beating Ohio State in Columbus.  Doing so, along with a Big Ten Title win, makes a Michigan return to the top four incredibly likely.  With the stakes as high as they are, and Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes looking to knock off the Wolverine’s chances, this year’s rivalry matchup is shaping up to be one of the most anticipated in recent history.

Beyond simple playoff positioning, Michigan fans still have plenty to be happy with.  Our defense remains number one in the country, offensively we continue to score at a blistering pace, and special teams continue to dazzle in all aspects — although, two consecutive running into the kicker penalties might have tarnished their “spotless” reputation.

Let’s not panic just yet.  There’s still plenty of season left to play.

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About Jake Thorne

Jake Thorne was editor in chief of the Michigan Review.