somehow we're only 124th
rolling ball of steak knives
Last week, I was really getting worried about what to do for this week's FFFF, as the only working Iowa torrent I could find was from their 13-3 loss to Penn State, and they were slated to play Minnesota in the week leading up to the Michigan game. There's no possible way that any game film against Minnesota would be useful, due to the inevitable bludgeoning as GopherQuest forged on, and... wait, what?
This requires further investigation. To the breakdown! (This week, breakdown sadly comes sans video, as my video converter apparently couldn't handle the end of GopherQuest and committed suicide before turning my uneditable .mkv file into a nice, iMovie-compatible .mp4—prepare for lots of screencaps. If you want to see larger versions of the photos, I've uploaded them to my Flickr account.)
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Pro-style. Iowa spends much of their time in one-back and I-form, and usually goes to the gun only in obvious passing situations.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? MANBALL, which is pretty effective thanks to man-child running back Marcus Coker (more on him later).
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): James Vandenberg is relatively statuesque, though he has the ability—if given a fair amount of space—to escape the pocket and pick up a first down. It still takes a while. I'll give him a 3.
Dangerman: Marvin McNutt (#7) is arguably the best receiver in the conference, but I'm more worried about Coker (#34), who runs like a bigger, healthier Brandon Minor.
OVERVIEW: Iowa has a reputation for being very vanilla on defense (and they are), but that reputation easily carries over to the offense as well. Even when the Hawkeyes didn't have a great running game—while also boasting two outstanding receivers and a senior quarterback—they looked to ram the ball down your throat, and now with a first-year starter at QB, no Darrell Johnson-Koulianos, and Coker in the backfield, it's all about the run. On most first downs (and second, for that matter), they'll go under center and smash Coker up the middle, and he'll do this to great effect—Coker averages 5.3 yards per carry this year and has nearly eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark already. You'll see him a lot, as Coker has 182 carries this season while no other Hawkeye running back has more than 18—depth is a huge issue there.
Vandenberg is your stereotypical big pocket passer—the Chad Henne comparisons are accurate in terms of style, at least—and he has a very strong arm and solid accuracy. He has issues reading defenses, however, and resorts to a surprising amount of dink-and-dunk throws unless the Hawkeyes are running play-action—most of his big throws downfield came after a run fake, and he was quick to check down when there was even a hint of pressure. In order to help Vandenberg with his pre-snap reads, Iowa will motion an H-back or wide receiver on what seemed to be around half of their snaps, and if Vandenberg doesn't like what he sees from there, he'll usually check down into a run play or short pass.
PLAY BREAKDOWN: While Iowa tends to be pretty predictable, their big plays tend to come when they break tendencies. On the play screencapped below, the Hawkeyes lined up in the gun with three wideouts and an H-back, who motioned to a spot two yards in front of Coker. While Iowa mostly runs from under center, they'd shown this look before and handed it up the gut to Coker. On this play, however, they'd fake the dive and send Marvin McNutt—lined up in the slot—right up the seam. Let's just say he found some space:
This would be a 26-yard completion once the Gopher safeties finally dragged down McNutt. The play-action made it easy for Vandenberg to set up and immediately go to his first read—he's hesitant to throw downfield if the receiver isn't McNutt and there's no play fake to suck in the defense. In another example of Iowa breaking tendency, they lined up in a one-back set with the H-back going in motion—the same look they showed on at least a dozen of Coker's carries—then faked the dive and ran a reverse to McNutt, who had a ton of space and picked up 19 yards. The key to stopping this offense, besides doing whatever possible to slow down Coker, is to not get lulled to sleep.
As stated earlier, Vandenberg does have issues with his pre-snap reads, often appearing to choose which receiver he'll throw to before the snap (he locks on to McNutt often, and though this isn't a terrible idea given his ability, there were multiple passes into double coverage against Minnesota). When he sees a blitz coming, he'll get the ball out quickly, usually on a checkdown to the running back or a quick hitch to one of his receivers. This usually keeps him out of trouble, as evidenced by his lack of turnovers—he's thrown just four interceptions and the Hawkeyes are 11th in the country with just nine total giveaways.
Vandenberg doesn't always see the blitz, however, and that's when problems arise—on the play pictured below, the corner from the top of the screen snuck down to the line just before the snap, Vandenberg didn't see him, and the corner tore off the edge as the play rolled slightly away from him. The offensive line was in no position to pick up the blitz (and while they were outnumbered and this play was doomed, they didn't do Vandenberg any favors by having two guys not block anyone), and BRACE FOR CONTACT:
Would you be surprised if I told you Vandenberg fumbled on the play? Because you shouldn't be. Expect Greg Mattison to dial up a lot of zone blitzes in the hope that he'll confuse Vandenberg and get some free hitters on the blind side. Iowa's line managed to allow three sacks to the Gophers, who had all of five on the season heading into the game, so there will be opportunities to hit the quarterback and force some turnovers.
- About that Coker guy: He ran for 252 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries, and while all the usual caveats about holy hell Minnesota is awful apply, well, he still might be the best running back Michigan has faced this year. He's an absolute wrecking ball at 6'0", 230 pounds, and he'll simply laugh and then destroy if anyone smaller than a defensive lineman tries to tackle him one-on-one in space. After one thunderous run in which he broke through several attempts to tackle, Coker was described by the BTN play-by-play guy as "a rolling ball of steak knives," which is probably the most on-point comment ever uttered by a BTN announcer. The Wolverines will need to get multiple players in a position to hit Coker when he has the ball, and he's still going to break a couple runs into the secondary—this is when we'll really find out how big a deal it is losing Kovacs.
- I think Michigan's best strategy in this game is to get very aggressive with their blitzes and force Vandenberg to throw the ball downfield. Despite getting first-round hype heading into the season, left tackle Riley Reiff looked very susceptible to the speed rush, and got beat easily on a quick inside move for a sack by one of Minnesota's DEs. Vandenberg will throw the checkdown even on third down and long, and a couple Iowa drives ended on four-yard passes on third-and-eight (bingo!). On one such play, Vandenberg actually read the blitz and checked into a play in which his first two reads both ran hitches well short of the sticks, and it failed miserably.
- Give Vandenberg time, however, and he'll pick you apart—if he can set his feet in the pocket and go through his reads, he can hit any throw on the field. He threw a gorgeous fade to McNutt for Iowa's first touchdown and had some really impressive lasers on corner routes. The only game in which he had less than 7.4 yards per attempt this season came against Penn State, who sacked him five times. This is not a coincidence.
Base Set? 4-3. Iowa stays in their base set almost exclusively, unless facing a four-receiver spread.
Man or zone coverage? Defensive coordinator Norm Parker's affinity for the cover 2 zone—on practically every play—is well documented. The Hawkeyes will play zone until you find several ways to beat it, and then they'll play zone a little more just to make sure that wasn't a fluke, and even if it wasn't they'll keep doing it anyway because, dammit, that's how it's done at Iowa.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? In other words, rush three or bring a bunch of blitzes? Iowa would make GERG proud, as they almost never brought any extra pressure outside of rushing their four defensive linemen. They also barely got any pressure, and though one could chalk that up to Iowa ensuring they kept contain on MarQueis Gray, that's not going to change against Denard Robinson.
Dangerman: DE Broderick Binns (#91) got all the preseason hype, but he's been disappointing and had no impact against the Gophers, which can't be a good sign. I liked what I saw from weakside linebacker Christian Kirksey, who's a bit undersized at 6'2", 215, but always seems to end up around the football and is also the best Iowa linebacker in coverage.
OVERVIEW: Have I mentioned that Iowa likes to run the cover 2? That's really all they do, and it's just a matter of beating it. Handy cover 2 diagram, just mentally insert "weakside linebacker" in place of "nickel back":
There are weaknesses, of course, and Minnesota managed to exploit the two major ones when they passed the ball (Gray had by far the best game of his career, completing 11-of-17 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown with no picks)—10-15 yard passes to the sideline (between the corner and the deep safety) and the seam right up the middle (splitting the two deep safeties and over the top of the middle linebacker).
Iowa also had a difficult time defending runs right up the middle—more on that later—and this was against a Minnesota team that was (a) Minnesota and (b) trying out a new starter at left guard. The Hawkeye run defense is just 69th in the country, and their pass defense, shockingly, is worse (91st in opponent passer efficiency) despite boasting a pair of well-hyped corners in Shawn Prater and Micah Hyde. Prater looks susceptible to deep passes over the top (on the rare occasion when he is in man) and also got beat to the inside on a few slants. Hyde was barely tested, though he did have a nice pass breakup on a fade in the end zone and drew what I thought was a questionable pass interference call.
PLAY BREAKDOWN: About that cover 2—if you're going to run it, you need your safeties to be very, very disciplined. Iowa was usually pretty good about not letting anything go over the top, but they had trouble with play-action passes, especially this one, as free safety Tanner Miller bit on the run fake and could not recover and get outside:
That play went for 61 yards as Minnesota both drew up the free safety (on the right in this picture) on the play-fake and occupied the strong safety by running a post with their slot receiver. I'm actually surprised they didn't also send both outside receivers on streak routes, instead of just the one, but Minnesota likely wants Gray to have a safe underneath option—with the middle linebacker also occupied by the post, the slant could've worked here if the streak wasn't so hand-wavingly wide open.
The Hawkeyes also had trouble with runs up the middle—Minnesota's second-to-last scoring drive consisted of 11 runs on 12 plays, only one of which was an outside run, and that one a scramble on a pass play by Gray—as their defensive tackles repeatedly got sealed to the outside. Here's one such example in which not one, but both DTs end up getting pushed off to the left (from the offense's POV), allowing Duane Bennett to bust a 15-yard run up the middle:
I know this one's tough to see, but #93 (the interior D-lineman with his back turned) started as the DT on the right hash, while Binns (the near-side DE) is getting sealed to the outside by the right tackle. The arrow shows you where Bennett will find a gaping hole as the linebackers were unable to fill. I was pretty unimpressed by the linebacker play of Iowa, even though MLB James Morris recorded 13 tackles—too often they were passive and allowed blockers to get right into them. Now that Al Borges has introduced the inverted veer to the offense, I'd like to see Michigan try to exploit this weakness up the middle and see if they can get Denard running full speed into the secondary. Fitz Toussaint's success last week came almost entirely off the edge, so I think Shoelace gives Michigan the best chance to break a big run up the gut.
- The player who showed the biggest weakness to me was starting defensive tackle Steve Bigach (#54), who was repeatedly blown off the ball and was the main culprit on several of Minnesota's big runs up the middle. He weighs just 282 pounds, so there's actually a good chance that the somewhat-undersized interior of Michigan's O-line can do the same—hell, Minnesota managed it.
- Iowa really couldn't generate any pressure on Gray while leaving the pass rush in the hands of their defensive line. Without Adrian Clayborn wreaking havoc across from him, Binns seems to be relatively easy to neutralize—he only has 2.5 sacks this year, which is just .5 off the team lead. The Hawkeyes are tied for 83rd in the country in sacks for a reason, or I guess two: their conservative strategy and the lack of big-time playmaker on the line.
- The key for Michigan against this cover 2 will be for Denard to not force anything underneath, where there are usually several linebackers hanging out waiting for a wayward slant or a late throw on a hitch. Denard has had his issues this season in throwing the ball late to covered receivers—see his interception on the pass to Koger last week—and he won't be able to get away with those against Iowa. The good news is that Michigan should be able to flood the sideline and get multiple options vertically—handy picture pages post here—and that should give Denard some easy reads, since he should have ample time in the pocket.
Maybe it's because THEY LOST TO FREAKIN' MINNESOTA, FERGODSAKES, or just because there seem to be several weaknesses that play right into Michigan's hands, but I have a hard time seeing the Wolverines losing this one unless Coker goes HAM and Michigan commits multiple turnovers. I'm quite confident in this one now that there's enough evidence that the defense isn't a complete mirage. Hooray for confidence in the defense.