Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

(I should have a column on Denard Robinson up at Maize n Brew tomorrow, but for now, here are my postgame thoughts.  Enjoy.)

Best backup QB in the country?
I couldn't quite put my finger on what was different about yesterday afternoon.  In the hours leading up to the game I watched Illinois drop opportunity after opportunity in their upset bid against MSU (who is week in and week out executing and not breaking down mentally.  It's a brave new world for Sparty it seems), and I threw on an episode of Breaking Bad at halftime.  As the FSU vs. BC game finished and the coverage shifted to Ann Arbor I settled into my seat with a beer at my side and the computer tuned to scores across the nation.

The strange thing was, I wasn't nervous.  The last six games have all began with me nervously pacing around the apartment and yelling at the TV until I settled in somewhere near the end of the 1st quarter.  I sent a text message to my old roommate asking why I was so calm.  His response was simple, "I'm calm too.  I think it's because the pressure is off."  The pressure wasn't really off, but the difference from the previous weeks was palpable.  UConn and Notre Dame would set the course for the season and UMass and Bowling Green were opportunities for a gigantic regression that was worrisome until the game was in hand (making UMass one of the most nerve wracking wins since Ball State in 2006).  Indiana posed a huge threat to our defense, and the prospect of losing to Michigan State a third year in a row was maddening.

Despite his improvement, Stanzi offered up
one Rick-Six that Kovacs couldn't capitalize on.
Iowa?  That's house money.  A team with a great defense and efficient offense.  A team that capitalizes on mistakes while making few of their own   mostly thanks to the transformation of Ricky Stanzi from pick-six machine to composed game manager.  Say what you want about Kirk Ferentz, a guy who makes Jim Tressel look like a careless risk taker, but the man has run an incredibly steady ship at Iowa that maximizes talent and relies on the kind of Big Ten football that gives all the old blue-hairs in the Big House a tingly feeling in their nether regions.  The only nickels and dimes in Iowa city are coins.  Norm Parker would play that same 4-3 defense with two high safeties whether he was going up against a 5-wide formation or the power I.  The only thing quarterbacks in Iowa City love more than handing off on first and second down is America.

While opinions were mixed last week as to who would win between Michigan and Michigan State, things seemed pretty clear going into the Big House yesterday.  It was Iowa's game to lose.  Unfortunately for Michigan, Iowa did just what it needed to do to win:  force two sophomore quarterbacks to win the game with long drives, capitalize on mistakes, and give up yards not touchdowns.  A deeper and more experienced team out executed a still developing Wolverine squad.  Losses hurt, but there is a lot to take away from this game:

The Good - Offense
  • When David Molk went down with an ankle injury early in the game I immediately panicked.  If there was one event that could bring the dread of repeating 2009 rushing back it was David Molk being forced to miss extended time because of injury.  A lot happened last year to bring about the disastrous end to the season, but when making a list of causes, Molk's injury would be near the top.  There is one crucial difference between this year and last year: depth.  Last year the loss of Molk started a reshuffling along the line that never really settled on any one lineup.  David Moosman was forced to shift to center after starting the first few games at guard and the offense never reached the heights it had earlier in the season.  This year there is actual depth behind Molk, and Rocko Khoury stepped in with very little drop off in production.  There were a couple shotgun snaps that missed the mark, but they weren't five feet over the head of the quarterback.  The fact that the most important offensive lineman can go down with an injury and the offense can still produce at a high level speaks to the coaching staff and their ability to develop talent along the front of the line.
  • While Denard Robinson had another hard day dealing with a talented and fundamentally sound defense that was set on keeping him between the hashmarks and taking away the easy passing reads, Tate Forcier stepped in admirably when Robinson went down in the 2nd half.  Forcier made a couple forced throws, but looked crisp most of the time.  Iowa's defense looked flustered as Forcier opened up the vertical passing game and let the receivers make plays downfield.  Robinson still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback, but it is nice to know we have one of the best 2nd string quarterbacks in the country.
  • The outside receivers stepped their game up to a whole new level.  When Forcier first came into the game and threw a couple bad passes in Stonum's direction I could see the frustration on his face.  Instead of sulking, Stonum channeled that frustration and made play after great play the rest of the afternoon.  Micah Hyde was absolutely helpless against Stonum who made some very impressive catches in the face of good defensive pressure.  Making Stonum's job easier was the great play on the other side of the field.  Junior Hemingway has delivered on all the promise that frustrated fans through two years of injury.  He made yet another great play on a jump ball near the goal line, and was deceptively fast on his long touchdown catch.  On a day where Roundtree was conspicuously absent it was great to have two other receivers step up and make plays.
  • Let's give Stephen Hopkins the ball, OK?  The kid has a great compliment of power and shiftiness, much like Brandon Minor.  If Michael Shaw can find his way back on the field we could finally have a productive combo of running backs.  I am still not happy with the way the staff continues to use Vincent "the 160 lb battering ram" Smith, but it was nice to see him use his receiving skills on a couple slants.  Hopefully this can shift him away from the running back position until he is back to 100%.
  • The offensive line was tasked with a very steep challenge, and they found a way to produce.  The rushing game did not spring any big plays, but it is certainly a positive sign that the offense was able to rush the ball for 187 yards on 4.5 ypc.  They had to work for those yards, but that kind of steady production against the formerly #2 ranked rush defense is impressive.  Also, Michigan's two rushing touchdowns were the first two Iowa has allowed all season.  Iowa's defensive numbers will regress a bit through the rest of the year when they face teams like Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State, but that was an above average rush defense that gave up over twice it's average ypg.
The Bad - Defense
  • there are fewer positives.  The defense "held" Iowa to 383 yards, but that was more due to the short field that Iowa almost always seemed to have on offense.  One positive to take away is the five 3-and-outs that the defense forced.
  • One positive is the emergence of Kenny Demens as a suitable replacement for Obi Ezeh.  I will wait until the UFR of the game before I proclaim Demens to be the savior at MLB, but from what I saw he was at least aggressive attacking the ball.  There is absolutely nothing to gain from giving Obi Ezeh playing time if he is not an upgrade over a RS-So, and Demens should receive the lion's share of the playing time until something changes.
  • The problems in the secondary are not going away any time soon.  It pains me to see Courtney Avery   a true freshman who should be redshirting   faced with making a crucial drive ending tackle late in the 4th quarter.  I can excuse that, but the rest of the tackling in the secondary was poor today.  James Rogers avoids contact, Cam Gordon doesn't wrap up, and JT Floyd is still inconsistent.  Adam Robinson looked like Ron Dayne out there yesterday, and it is because of the play of the secondary.
  • Also, for being our "best" corner, JT Floyd has to get in better position to stop that slant pass that DJK scored his final touchdown on.  Great example of an experienced receiver taking a young cornerback to school.
  • The lack of pressure on Stanzi is concerning.  Iowa does not have a great offensive line and yet Stanzi had all day to throw.  When you don't force the quarterback to make quick throws you won't get opportunities for takeaways.  On that note, Kovacs must be kicking himself for dropping that "Rick-Six".  Great play on the ball, but you have to make that play.  That dropped interception ended up being a 14 point swing.
The Ugly - Special Teams
  • The most troubling aspect of yesterdays game is unquestionably the play of the special teams unit.  Everyone knew that at one point during the year the special teams would cost us a game, and while the mistakes did not directly bring about the loss, the rest of the team never was forced to play with a short stack in the 4th quarter because of two kickoffs that went OOB.  This doesn't even begin to describe my anger at the blocked FG and subsequent return.  This unit has A LOT of growing up to do over the next two weeks if this team is to win the next three games.
On to the bye week.  After a 5-0 start, no one likes dropping two in a row.  Yet at this point in the season things are still overwhelmingly positive.  The two losses have come to top 15 teams, and the defense has done enough in almost every game to give the offense a chance to win.

Breathe deep and remember the goal is still a very achievable 8-4.

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