A unique challenge awaits the Michigan football team’s secondary Saturday afternoon against Iowa and the Hawkeyes’ notoriously anemic offense. In their season opener they defeated South Dakota State, 7-3, without a touchdown — instead notching a field goal and two safeties.
Those offensive woes are particularly apparent through the air. Behind third-year starting quarterback Spencer Petras, Iowa averages just 180.1 passing yards per game, ranking in the bottom half in the Big Ten.
That’s not to say that the Wolverines’ secondary will go unchallenged. Tuesday, junior defensive back R.J. Moten noted that Michigan wants the Hawkeyes to throw the ball, goading them away from the run game.
If all goes according to plan, the secondary will be plenty busy.
“We know they only have a certain amount of pass plays, we know who the quarterback favors,” Moten said. “So basically, we just want to stop the run and get them to those second and long, third and long situations where we can let the rushers rush and us cover.”
That strategy’s success is predicated on the Wolverines’ secondary shoring up their mistakes from an up-and-down performance last Saturday against Maryland. Facing quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and the Terrapins, Michigan allowed a season-worse 269 passing yards.
Moten was quick to credit Maryland’s talented receiving corps, noting that it comprises one of the stiffest tests that the unitwill face this season.
That much is true, but an array of improvements can be made as well.
“We have a lot of work to do,” sophomore safety Rod Moore said Monday. “We just have to tighten up on the little small things and then just come back next week and do it again.”
Moten echoed that sentiment Tuesday, listing a myriad of areas that the defensive backs want to shore up.
Tackling is a particularly pertinent focus. Facing Tagovailoa — who is mobile and elusive — the Wolverines struggled to finish off tackles, often letting him slip free from their grasp at the last second.
“I feel like sometimes we were out there and we weren’t as communicative as we should have been,” Moten said. “Definitely tackling, a whole bunch of us had missed tackles. Angles on the ball, being able to force turnovers. And really just getting lined up faster when teams try to use tempo on us.”
Against Iowa, which figures to feature a run-heavy game plan, Michigan’s defensive backs will need to tackle more effectively.
“As corners, some games you might have to tackle a lot,” senior cornerback D.J. Turner said. “But this is one of those games where you might have to stay in one place and just execution and being disciplined, those would be the main things.”
A week’s worth of practice may not seem like a lot of time, but it’s enough to right some wrongs. The Wolverines are focusing on certain drills which emphasize tenets that make good tackles: pursuing the ball, wrapping up the opponent, gaining ground in the open field.
In addition to countering the run, Michigan’s tackling ability will be put to the test against Iowa’s tight ends. Sam LaPorta looms as the Hawkeyes’ top receiving threat, as he leads the team with 16 receptions and 154 yards this season.
Moten — listed at 223 pounds — is a bigger body than the other two safeties, Moore and junior Markari Paige. Much of the onus to counteract LaPorta, then, falls on his shoulders.
The key, he says, is physicality.
“Being able to use your hands at the top of their routes,” Moten said. “They like to push off a little bit or use their body, being able to box out, so really just stopping them at the line and getting in their head just a little bit.”
Checking the tight end is a responsibility that falls on the nickel or the linebacker. And it’s a task that Moten is ready for.
“It’s a big responsibility, especially this week,” Moten said. “Most of our safeties are lined up against tight ends in certain situations. Knowing that they like to single him and put him backside X, it’ll be a big challenge for us this week.”
And Iowa as a whole presents one too, albeit a different one than Maryland posed.