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October 16, 2010The question of the moment - and there's really no way to answer it right now - is how much of Michigan's self-destruction is due to coaching, and how much is due to youth and bad luck? If it's the former, then Michigan under Rich Rodriguez is always going to be a team that snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. If it's the latter, then the program is oh, so close to greatness.
I don't know the answer. But here's the thing. The aspects of the game that Michigan is bad at are aspects that aren't hard to do decently. It's not hard to make short field goals, boot kickoffs inside the ten yard line and in-bounds, and to avoid massive deficits in turnovers and penalty yardage. Mediocre coaching staffs with mediocre talent manage to do this all the time.
You know what's hard? Gaining 522 yards of offense against one of the best defenses in America, with two seniors on the field and your best lineman out of the game. Very, very few coaching staffs could manage that.
It's hard to figure out why this team is so good at things that are so hard, and so bad at things that are so easy. It's possible Rodriguez is the best offensive mind in college football but cannot master the full responsibilities of head coaching. Or it's possible he has suffered from youth and a run of bad luck. I honestly don't know the answer yet.
The offense moved the ball with ease from the very beginning. It killed several drives with penalties. Iowa's soft defense, with two deep safety, allowed Michigan to move the ball in four- and five-yard chunks like a basketball team taking a layup drill. The trouble was that Iowa's defensive style also kept a lid on longer plays, at least with Denard Robinson at quarterback. So, when a penalty turned 10 yards for a first down into 15, or 25, the offense ground to a halt. Every one of those penalties was legitimate.
The offensive production was especially impressive given Molk's injury. After the center left the game, the offense immediately starting running plays from the I formation, and continued to do so throughout the game much more frequently than usual. The plays seemed less successful than the traditional spread plays. It's hard to tell if this decision was a reaction to Molk's absence or a strange coaching decision.
The worst thing to happen this game was that Denard Robinson has regressed. He seems suddenly hesitant, failing to pull the trigger on pass with open receivers. It may be a brief sophomore slump, or it may be that the most dangerous weapon in college football has become mortal.
Similar to last week, the running point in the game occurred very early on. Jordan Kovacs jumped a bad pass and had an almost sure touchdown in front of him if he held on. (And yes, Kovacs has linebacker speed, but even a defensive lineman would have scored in that position.) He dropped it. The next play, Iowa scored a touchdown. 14 point swing.
Incidentally, that touchdown came as a wide receiver exploited Kenny Demens in zone coverage. The word on Demens has been that he is a liability in pass coverage. Given that this was a reason not to play Demens at all until this week, wouldn't it have made sense to lift him on third down and long?
Speaking of Demens: While he did not play like an all-Big Ten linebacker, he appeared to be a vast improvement over Obi Ezeh. Michigan held Iowa to a very respectable 135 yards rushing, with Mike Martin - it's best player by far - sitting out a large portion of the game. The good news is that this bodes much better for the defense going forward. None of the remaining opponents have a passing game as good as Iowa's. If the defense can play reasonably solid against the run going forward, it significantly improves the outlook.
On the other hand, what does this say about Greg Robinson? I don't have access to practices. But it has been clear to me and many other observers for a very long time that Ezeh lacks the quick reaction to handle the middle linebacker position at even a minimal level. The little data I've seen - the Spring game and Demens' goal line snaps - suggest very strongly that Demens does have some ability. He's not a star, but he can diagnose a play, get to the right place, and tackle the runner with some force.
The Iowa game was just one game, and it's possible Demens will regress. (Again, it's not like he was Ray Lewis.) But I have to believe that Robinson simply made an obviously wrong personnel decision. It's hard not to lose some confidence in him.
If I told you before the game that Michigan would have 522 yards of offense, and the defense would force five three-and-outs, you'd feel good about the outcome. So let's return to the question posed at the outset: coaching or luck?
The fact that 160 pound Courtney Avery was the man in position to make the drive-stopping tackle and get the ball back at the end of the game was the result of a long chain of extremely bad luck. It's not hard to find other teams with severe special teams problems. (Ask Ohio State fans about their kick coverage this season.) On the other hand, the result of Michigan's blocked field goal, where the entire team stood still and failed to cover the ball, obviously represented a coaching failure.
Every other execution failure can be looked at both ways. Freshman tackle Taylor Lewan made a series of damaging errors. Is that just the kind of thing that happens with freshmen? Yes. Should his coach have instructed him not to commit personal fouls in a way that he would never forget? Yes.
Here is why I am not giving up on this coaching staff yet: because the team hasn't. Down three touchdowns in the second half - twice! - with leaders Molk and Martin on the bench, they had every chance to quit. They did not. They fought. It's possible this team will collapse like it did the year before. But there also is plenty of opportunity to write a different ending.