For this week’s edition of Friend vs Foe we welcome RossWB from one of our favorite fellow Big Ten team sites, the Iowa SB Nation blog Black Heart Gold Pants. He answers questions about Iowa’s late-game struggles, Michigan’s chances of running the ball, Iowa’s passing game, and where the advantages lie. He also gives his prediction. You can follow Ross on Twitter at @RossWB and the site’s main feed at @BHGP.
1. Iowa had fourth quarter leads or ties in losses to NIU, Michigan State, and Ohio State, but they’ve been outscored 78-44 in the fourth quarter. What has gone wrong late in games this season?
I think the biggest late-game problem for Iowa has been their offense. It’s been pretty weak in the third and fourth quarters this year, especially in Big Ten play (the Purdue game notwithstanding… and all stats from games against Purdue this year should probably carry a caveat). Iowa has really struggled to sustain drives and (more importantly) score points at the end of games this season, which is a bit of a problem when you’re tied or chasing a lead. So Iowa’s best bet is definitely to build a big early lead and then hang on; if it’s a close game in the fourth quarter, I think it’s safe to say that Iowa fans are going to be very nervous.
2. Michigan’s lack of a running game the past few weeks (really all season, but especially the past few weeks) is no secret. Iowa ranks 24th against the run. Ohio State and Northwestern all had – and NIU to some extent – had success on the ground with mobile quarterbacks. Does Michigan have any hope running the ball this week?
There’s something there, for sure, especially with the running quarterbacks — sometimes Iowa does alright (they held Northern Illinois to 163 yards and Lynch to just 56 yards) and sometimes they don’t (Miller torched Iowa for 102 yards on the ground by himself). But at the same time Michigan is ranked 98th in running the ball and that offensive line has been unable to get much of a push at all for the better part of the last three weeks — I think Iowa has a pretty shot at keeping Michigan’s ground game in check on Saturday. I’m definitely more worried about Devin Gardner’s scrambles than I am seeing Michigan line up and run Fitzgerald Touissant (or whichever running back is healthy) between the tackles, though.
3. Tell me about the Iowa passing game. For those who haven’t watched Iowa play this season, is Jake Rudock a playmaker or more of a game manager? Michigan’s DBs like to play soft coverage to prevent big plays…can he make big throws or is he more of a dink and dunker? And for the love of God, please tell me all of Iowa’s tight ends are injured this week…
Game manager is probably a more accurate description of his play than playmaker. He’s a deceptively good runner, but he’s certainly no Johnny Manziel or Marcus Mariota in the pocket — he’s no threat to break off a 50-yard run. (He’s even less of a running threat after sustaining a knee injury against Wisconsin a few weeks ago, although that injury is not expected to keep him out of the game this weekend.) As a passer, Rudock’s best attribute is probably his poise; he doesn’t let bad plays faze him. He doesn’t have the most powerful arm, his accuracy has suffered in league play (which is why his completion percentage has dipped to 59.9%), and he’s thrown a few too many costly interceptions (9 so far, including several in the fourth quarter). But he has a calm presence in the pocket and he’s capable of leading some very impressive scoring drives. Consistency is his biggest issue, which is not too surprising for a first-year starter.
In terms of tight ends, I believe Iowa will have a full contingent of them available for this weekend. Iowa’s top tight end, C.J. Fiedorowicz left the Purdue game a few weeks ago due to concussion-like symptoms, but he appears to have a clean bill of health now. CJF caught touchdowns in three straight games earlier in Big Ten play and he’s grabbed at least one pass in every game this year. Ray Hamilton and Jake Duzey are the tight ends behind Fiedorowicz on the depth chart, but they see quite a bit of action themselves (Iowa has even been running some 3-TE sets over the last month or so) and are both very capable pass-catchers. Iowa’s tight ends are the most consistent part of their passing game (other than top WR Kevonte Martin-Manley), so I’d definitely expect to see them be involved quite a bit on Saturday.
4. Where do you see Iowa having an outright advantage over Michigan this weekend, and why? Are there any areas that you think Michigan has the edge?
This is a tricky question because in a lot of ways, it seems like Iowa’s strengths will be matched up against Michigan’s strengths. Iowa’s strength on offense all year has been their offensive line and running game; unfortunately, it seems like Michigan’s front seven has been pretty solid this year (the Wolverines are 13th in the nation against the run, after all). I think the biggest edge for Iowa may be their tight ends. Iowa has a lot of good tight ends (C.J. Fiedorowicz, Jake Duzey, and Ray Hamilton will all see a lot of action) and they gave Ohio State some problems with their 3-TE formations; I think they’d be wise to try and attack Michigan the same way and try to open things up for their running game.
I think the biggest edge for Michigan might be in attacking Iowa deep; Iowa’s safety play has been pretty inconsistent this season and they’ve given up a lot of big plays through the air. If I was Michigan, I’d send a few deep passes at Funchess and Gallon to try and exploit that weakness. Other than that, the biggest advantage for Michigan is probably Devin Gardner’s scrambling ability; Iowa’s defensive ends sometimes struggle to keep contain if a QB is able to keep a play alive for several seconds (I still have nightmares of Braxton Miller turning the corner and hitting the afterburners).
5. What’s your prediction and how will it happen?
As recently as a few weeks ago, I didn’t hold out much hope for Iowa getting a result in this game. But then Iowa showed promise against Wisconsin (on defense, at least) and a lot more competence against Purdue (competition caveats apply, of course). After those games it was a lot easier to chalk up Iowa’s losses against Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin as the result of playing the Big Ten’s three best teams in a five-week span. No offense to the Wolverines, but they don’t seem to be on par with those teams right now. After their bye week earlier this season, Iowa had one of their sharpest first half offensive performances of the season (against Ohio State); I think they come out clicking again on Saturday and this time they’re able to hold on in the second half. IOWA 24, MICHIGAN 16
To me this game comes down to whether Michigan’s offensive line can open holes and protect Devin Gardner. Iowa’s offense is a low scoring, run-based offense that Michigan should be able to contain and hold under 20 points. The Iowa defense, however, poses some issues for a Michigan team that has not only struggled to move the ball lately but has been downright awful on the road the past three years.
I’ll be honest, I don’t like our chances in Iowa City but there is a reason the game isn’t played on paper. Let’s move on and take a look at what Michigan needs to do to come away with a road win.
Last game we saw some glimpses of decent offensive line play, so assuming that carries forward and they can at least be serviceable let’s look at the rest of the offense.
Move the ball on first and second, avoiding third downs as much as possible. Michigan has been just awful on third downs this season, some of it is physical but a lot is probably mental as well. Last week against Northwestern they moved the ball quite a bit (when they did move it that is) on first and second down. If they can get 5-6 yards on first and second downs then they won’t get caught in the dreaded third down on the road situation. How they can do this is beyond me, I just know they need to avoid third downs as much as possible.
Stick with what is working, not what you think might work. What I mean by this is exactly what it says. Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith were having success running the ball, but then they stopped and started passing it because the wind was at their back and Borges wanted to see if they could pass it. Don’t do that anymore. If the run game is working, keep running until they stop you. If the pass game is going then keep with it. A balanced offense is nice but if you can run down their throats all day (as Wisconsin once did to us under RichRod) then why would you try to do something else?
Keep the game manageable until the fourth quarter. Iowa hasn’t been all that good in the fourth quarter so assuming that trend continues as long as Michigan can keep it close through the first three they should be in good shape for the final stanza.
Take advantage of good field position. As soon as Northwestern shanked the punt and set us up at the 10 I turned to my brother and said ‘no way they get six, lets just hope for at least three and not a turnover.’ This is Michigan, act like it and put the ball in the dang endzone when you are in the redzone, period. If we see more wasted opportunities I fear the football gods won’t be as kind to us in Iowa CIty as they were in Evanston.
Forget the past. Michigan hasn’t been very good away from The Big House in Brady Hoke’s tenure. Championship teams do win at home, but they also win on the road in hostile environments. The pink of Iowa’s visiting locker room doesn’t exactly scream ‘scary’ but Iowa City is a tough place to play. If they can just go out and not let the crowd intimidate them and not think about their past struggles on the road it will go a long way to strengthening their confidence.
Stop the run. Mark Weisman is a bruiser and has some speed but he won’t be winning any 100 meter races any time soon. While Iowa does pass the ball they are a run focused team. Stop the run and play coverage. I say play coverage because Michigan has yet to show me a legitimate pass rush and Iowa has only allowd 9 sacks in ten games. Michigan has given up more than twice that in the past three games alone. If Michigan focuses on stopping the run but still playing good coverage to keep everything in front of them they should be in good shape.
Get third down stops and force them to punt. This should be basic and a given but this team has been anything but consistent all year so I feel it deserves mention. Get the defense off the field and get Gardner the ball as much as possible.
Don’t give up the big play. Again this has been an issue for Michigan. One or two big plays can lead to scores and ultimately determine the outcome. Likewise, one or two big stops can keep Michigan in the game, if the offense is stagnant, or seal it if the offense is clicking on all cylinders.
Keep it manageable until the fourth quarter and let Iowa give it away as they so often do.
On Special Teams:
Just keep doing what you’re doing. Special teams has been rather pleasant to watch, as far as punting and kicking field goals can be deemed exciting. Win the field position game and Michigan will help put itself into good situations.
Prediction: This team has struggled too much on the road for me to be comfortable heading in. Couple that with a lackluster offensive line and a good front seven for Iowa and I just don’t see Michigan coming out of there with a win.