Seniors aiming for first victory over Iowa

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Luke Pasch, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 15, 2012

This Saturday has been four — and for some, five — years in the making.

For the Michigan football team’s seniors, it will be the last time they run out of the Michigan Stadium tunnel and touch the ‘M Club’ banner with more than 110,000 fans screaming their heads off.

And chances are, with a relatively unimpressive Iowa roster visiting, they’ll close out their Big House careers with a bang.

Not surprisingly, the coaches won’t admit it.

“(Iowa is) one of the good football teams, especially a team that, capacity-wise, they’re playing well when you look at taking care of the football, turnovers and the running game from an offensive line standpoint,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “They’re typical Iowa, where they’re going to get on you, and they’re going to do a great job in the zone schemes.”

The Hawkeyes actually did start the Big Ten season strong with a 31-13 drubbing of Minnesota, followed by an exhilarating double-overtime win at Michigan State. Since then, they have dropped off, losing each of their next four games. And it won’t help that their final two opponents are perhaps their toughest in Michigan and Nebraska.

Iowa’s offensive attack has been anemic this season. Of the 120 FBS teams, it ranks 104th in points per game with 20.8. The Hawkeye offensive line has been plagued with injuries, making it tough for sophomore fullback Mark Weismann — Iowa’s leading rusher — to find holes and for senior quarterback James Vandenberg to find time in the pocket.

The Wolverines no longer have to worry about former Iowa running back Marcus Coker, who was suspended for the Insight Bowl last season because of an alleged sexual assault and has since transferred to Stony Brook. Last season, Coker terrorized the Michigan front seven, rushing for 132 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Still, the Michigan defense has to improve after stumbling against Northwestern last week and surrendering the most points it has allowed since playing Alabama in Week 1. And it will have to transition back to playing against a pro-style offense, as opposed to the Wildcats’ spread attack.

“The corrections can be lumped in a general deal that you’ve got to execute the assignment of the defense,” said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. “Unless you’re really really much better than everybody, you have to play it perfect or you’re going to have a chance of things not being like you want. I think our guys understand that.”

On the other side of the ball, Iowa’s defense does a solid job of getting off the field under new defensive coordinator Phil Parker. The unit allows just 22 points per game, good for 29th in the FBS. But that statistic is somewhat misleading considering the Hawkeyes have given up more than that average in each of the last four weeks of conference play.

Last season, Iowa held Michigan to just 16 points.

“They’ve changed coordinators, yet it’s been almost a seamless change,” said offensive coordinator Al Borges. “I think the new coach Parker has kind of added his little pinch to the defense, but the core is still intact. They play blocks. You step, they step.”

Expect whoever starts at quarterback for Michigan — whether it’s senior Denard Robinson, who is nursing an elbow injury, or junior quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-quarterback Devin Gardner — to have a lot of time in the pocket. The Hawkeyes don’t have a particularly strong defensive line, and they rarely rush more than four down linemen.

Gardner has been an effective passer and he should continue to fill in nicely for Robinson against the Iowa defense, so long as he avoids shutdown cornerback Micah Hyde.

If Gardner does get the nod for the third straight week, he’ll be playing for the seniors, especially Robinson. As much pressure as it puts on him to potentially deliver the seniors their only victory over Iowa, the coaches just hope he and the rest of the team are focused on the matter at hand.

“I hope they’re thinking about Iowa,” Hoke said.