Monday, November 14, 2016

Michigan 13, Iowa 14: That November feeling, pt. 2

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On a November Iowa night, perfection crashed into the gaping maw of unpredictability, like a deer running right across I-80 and into your path: sudden terror, swift and paralyzing.

But that's November football. September and October are utterly different things, separate and apart from that month, November. Had T.S. Eliot been a college football fan, perhaps he would have reconsidered his stance on April, the ostensibly cruelest month. T.S. Eliot never watched a No. 3 team in the country -- one that had scored 40-plus points in seven of its first nine games -- travel to Iowa City and cough up 201 yards of total offense and 13 points against a previously 5-4 team, one that lost by 27 points the previous week.

What branches grow out of this stony rubbish? For Iowa, it's a game in which you could say the Hawkeyes outplayed Michigan despite only putting up 230 yards of offense, going 4-for-16 on third down, and 3.5 yards per attempt by C.J. Beathard.

None of that mattered. Michigan ran into a seemingly refocused, re-energized Hawkeyes squad, and didn't have an answer when they weren't able to connect on the early knockout punch. Every game has its primary inflection point (some games have many). The Wolverines laid claim to a 10-0 lead -- it seemed as if one more first-half score from Michigan would have done the Hawkeyes in.

Instead, a Ron Coluzzi punt downed Michigan at its own 2, Michigan's pass protection failed and suddenly Iowa had two on the board. A Michigan three-and-out later and the Hawkeyes were starting on their own 48. Seven plays later, it's 10-8.

In games like these, each mistake is magnified. Khalid Hill coughs the ball up on the kickoff return to open the second half, and it eventually leads to three more for Iowa. Michigan was down just 11-10, but the winds had shifted, unabated on the vast Iowa flatland.

Michigan bumbled through the rest of the quarter before a fortuitous roughing-the-center call on a Michigan punt gave the Wolverines life. Even then, the Wolverines stumbled mightily when faced with a third-and-1 from the Iowa 27, when the swarming Iowa defense engulfed Karan Higdon shortly after he received an outside pitch from Wilton Speight.

The two teams traded interceptions, with Michigan's particularly backbreaking given that they'd reached the Iowa 38 -- even a field goal would have changed everything.

Then, with a chance to truly put the game away, Michigan ran De'Veon Smith for one yard, Jabrill Peppers for one yard, then a shot downfield to Amara Darboh fell incomplete (with Speight taking a vicious shot to the shoulder).

Few situations in sports fandom are more tense than this: The other team has the ball with just enough time to get into field goal range and, in the process, leave your team with little or no time to respond. There's a helplessness that builds with each successful play, with each moving of the chains.

Even worse, starting from the Michigan 36 after a face mask penalty, the Hawkeyes didn't have to go far. They did what they had to and booted the 33-yarder as time expired, ending Michigan's run of perfection.

So, what now?

Even after Iowa's brutal performance at Penn State, I knew this matchup presented the proverbial "trap" game (I would be lying if I thought it would be that close, let alone yield a Michigan loss). A Big Ten road game, at Kinnick, at night, is always going to be tough. Ohio State learned a similar lesson earlier this year against what at that point seemed to be a fairly pedestrian Penn State squad.

Such is college football. If Michigan fans can take any solace, it's in the fact that they weren't the only ones to fall. Clemson, Washington, Auburn and Texas A&M all dropped games, with Clemson and Washington falling out of the undefeated ranks.

Still, there's no antidote for the frustration that follows a November failure. With that said, Michigan still, in theory, can win out and join the playoff field.

It's just that that proposition seems far shakier than it did, especially with the news of Speight's injury.

Enter John O'Korn.

It wasn't long ago that another Big Ten team rode a backup quarterback to a national title. Ohio State, of course, struck gold with Cardale Jones, who powered the Buckeyes with his blend of running ability and arm strength to wins in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, then playoff wins against Alabama and Oregon.

Michigan fans will have to hope Jim Harbaugh can find similar success with O'Korn, the Houston transfer billed as the higher-ceiling option earlier in the calendar year before Speight proved himself more capable of consistently and prudently moving the ball.

None of that matters now. O'Korn will be the starter, and Michigan's hopes will ride on his ability to get the offense back on track after a faith-shaking night in Iowa City (perhaps Unreal City, as Eliot wrote, is more appropriate).


  • Tackling ... it is a concern. Whether it's Mike McCray or Channing Stribling or even Peppers, Michigan's back seven players have had some whiffs in recent weeks. Sure, Iowa's Akrum Wadley can make you look silly, but these sort of mistakes don't bode well for Michigan's defense against J.T. Barrett et al. 
  • Even so ... talk of the defense's failures should be tempered by talk of its successes. For all of the teeth-gnashing following Saturday's loss, the defense still completely shut down Iowa's passing game. Plus, 12 non-safety points is still pretty good, any way you slice it. 
  • But cracks are showing, and it's not hard to have visions of last year. Remember when Michigan's defense started to wilt late last season against Indiana and Ohio State? This isn't that, exactly, but teams were previously unable to do much of anything running the ball between the tackles. That wasn't the case for Iowa. Is it the beginning of a trend or did Iowa simply strike gold via Wadley's shakin' and bakin'? We probably won't find out for sure against an Indiana team that isn't the offensive force it has been -- we certainly will against Ohio State. 
  • Pressure. Michigan's 'D' still tallied six tackles for loss, including a sack apiece from Taco Charlton, Chase Winovich and Chris Wormley. So, that's good. 
  • Downfield shots. It's an almost pointless thing to say, but if Speight hits one or two of those open receivers down the field, this is probably a different column. But, for whatever reason, he didn't, and here we are. I wouldn't expect the downfield quarterback-receiver synergy to be better with a new quarterback taking the reins, unfortunately. 
  • Perfection isn't easy. Four of the last five national champions had a loss. College football is too prone to random bouts of concentrated insanity for perfection to be easy or common. Even Alabama, that paragon of infallibility under Nick Saban, has only won one national championship while going undefeated (2009), while the other three seasons featured a loss (2011, 2012, 2015). I don't know if this Michigan team will join that club of slightly imperfect champions -- let alone make the playoff field -- but it remains true that Saturday wasn't the end of the world. It was only the end of a perfect one. Luckily for Michigan, college football championships are not necessarily won with perfection, but excellence at the right time. 

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