Saturday, November 23, 2013

Michigan 21, Iowa 24: It Tolls For Thee

Michigan 21, Iowa 24

Photo credit: Alan Light

Fresh off an overtime win in Evanston that was two parts ugly and one part dogged resilience, the Michigan Wolverines hit the road again, this time for the record-setting cold of Iowa City, looking for their first consecutive road wins in the Brady Hoke era. 

The Hawkeyes last took the field on Nov. 9, when they dispatched the Purdue Boilermakers with ease at Ross-Ade Stadium, 38-14, their best performance since pasting the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium back in September. 

The Wolverines came into Saturday a 6-point underdog against the 6-4 (3-3) Hawkeyes. In previous years, Michigan fans might have looked at a line like that with significant skepticism, but this is not like any other season. For the Wolverines to move to 8-3 heading into The Game, anything less than their best game would likely result in a loss. Michigan's much-discussed road woes did not bode well for them at Kinnick Stadium, a place they had not won since their overtime victory there in 2005. 

On Iowa's first offensive play of the game, QB Jake Rudock rolled to his right, where he was met by Jake Ryan. Ryan walloped the sophomore quarterback as he released, leading to a fluttering ball that Brennen Beyer snagged and took to the end zone untouched, giving Michigan an early 7-0 lead. 

The Hawkeyes missed a field goal on their second drive, but started their third with good field position at the Michigan 45 following Michigan's second three and out in as many drives. Iowa drove down to the end zone in seven plays, capped by a 5-yard touchdown pass to a diving CJ Fiedorowicz.

The game continued on like a record scratching every time Michigan got the ball. The offense went three-and-out again, and Matt Wile's short punt again allowed the Hawkeyes to start in Michigan territory. This time, the defense held when Iowa elected to go for it on 4th & 5.

Later, after Kevonte Martin-Manley backtracked on a punt return, getting himself hogtied at the Iowa 3, Blake Countess reeled in the Michigan defense's second interception of the first half.

The Wolverines found themselves with a 2nd & goal from the Iowa 2-yard line. Gardner play action faked and rolled back to his right. He carried the ball about as far as he could, seemingly with the intent to run it in or take the loss, before finding a wide open A.J. Williams in the end zone with an unorthodox flip pass. The touchdown was Williams' first career reception, and it came at a great time for a Michigan offense that struggled mightily in the first half.

The offense finally woke up on its final drive of the first half. Starting from the Iowa 47, a couple timely completions through the air and some nifty running by Gardner moved Michigan down to the Iowa 4. On third & goal from the 9 --after a 5-yard penalty on Kyle Kalis-- Gardner launched a strike to an open Jeremy Gallon a yard deep in the end zone, giving Michigan a 21-7 lead.

The Wolverines lapsed in kickoff coverage, however, allowing a 60-yard return that eventually yielded a field goal opportunity. Iowa's field goal struggles continued, however, as the holder couldn't put the ball down cleanly, not even allowing Mike Meyer a shot to kick it. Michigan went into the half up 21-7 despite having been outgained 170-113.

The turnover margin (+3 for Michigan) was the difference in the first half; for Michigan to hold on, they would have to avoid the swinging pendulum of regression in the second act.

Iowa got the ball to start the second half and scored quickly on a 55-yard connection from Rudock to Tevaun Smith, cutting the Michigan lead to 21-14 on a play in which 75% of Michigan's secondary failed to make a play. Courtney Avery got beat to the middle, Thomas Gordon missed a tackle and Delonte Hollowell was unable to clean up the mess.

Just like that, Iowa was back in it, with one big play on a defense that has been generally good at preventing them all season.

The Michigan offense continued to flail, but, once again, the defense saved the day. With Iowa in Michigan territory, Raymon Taylor gave Michigan its third pick of the day, ending what appeared to be an Iowa drive poised to result in points.

Unable to do anything offensively yet again, Michigan punted and Iowa started with solid field position, this time from its own 40. With a couple of solid gains, the Hawkeyes reached the Michigan 33 before the final seconds ticked off the clock in the third quarter.

Headed into the fourth with a 7-point lead despite a +4 turnover margin, the Wolverines appeared ready to participate in its third heart-wrenching fourth quarter in as many weeks.

The Hawkeyes easily converted on 4th & 1 at the Michigan 24, and Mark Weisman eventually rumbled his way into the end zone on first & goal from nine yards out to tie the game, 21-21.

If the third quarter wasn't enough, Michigan's first drive of the fourth made it clear that the offense would not be doing much to help out the defense on this day. With receivers dropping passes and Devin Gardner and his blocking's inability to handle any sort of blitz, the Wolverines went three and out once again, losing four yards in the process. In a word, Michigan's offensive performance in this game could best be described as "macabre."

With James Ross and Desmond Morgan not on the field due to injury, Michigan's defense appeared on the brink of collapse, as has been the case before late in games.

Fortunately for the Wolverines, Frank Clark came up with a big tackle for loss on third & 2, forcing an Iowa field goal. This time, Meyer buried it, giving Iowa a 24-21 lead with 6:02 to play.

Michigan got the ball and starting moving down the field, even getting into Iowa territory. Then, Gardner carried the ball close to the first down marker, before fumbling it at the Iowa 31. Iowa recovered, effectively ending the game (but not before Iowa converted a third & 10 with Michigan looking to get the ball back for one last chance).

In a game like this, Michigan's first turnover would be its undoing. And, so it was.

Adding one more disastrous offensive showing to the ledger, it's difficult to imagine there not being some sort of coaching turnover this offseason. Whether that actually happens remains to be seen, but the Wolverines still have one more game to play back in Ann Arbor before that talk begins in earnest. 

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