Bob Wojnowski and Angelique Chengelis break down the Michigan-Iowa game Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor – Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s comments about his offense after the win over Iowa were – apologies to Churchill – something like a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma ... then dipped in liquid titanium, studded with sharp spikes and placed on a high shelf.
If you can figure out their real meaning, because the theories have been out of control, then give yourself a prize.
In case you missed it, after Michigan’s 10-3 victory over then-No. 14 Iowa Saturday to improve the Wolverines to 4-1 (2-1 Big Ten) with a game at lowly Illinois ahead this week, Harbaugh was asked what kind of strides his offense can make this week.
It seemed to be a logical question after the Wolverines scored one touchdown in the first quarter, this in Game 5 of a new offense that had been installed earlier this year by first-year coordinator Josh Gattis. After all, Gattis dubbed his offense “speed in space” and the concept revolves around getting the ball in the hand of the playmakers.
“I really think we’re hitting our stride, I really do,” Harbaugh said. “The way our offense has been practicing, the way they’ve been preparing. I have great faith they’re hitting their stride.”
Harbaugh reiterated that point when asked a similar question at the end of his post-game news conference.
“I really do think they’re hitting their stride,” he said. “Got great faith in our players and our coaches.”
He was asked: So in what way does he see them hitting their stride?
“In every way,” Harbaugh said. “That’s what I see.”
His comments have been parsed in every which way. Those defending them said no way Harbaugh would throw his players under a bus after such a low-output offensive performance. But the questions weren't meant to encourage that and clearly coaches across the country and over the years have criticized team weaknesses without damaging the players’ confidence.
Look, it would be unusual for him to think an offense ranked 92nd nationally and 102nd running the ball has hit its stride when everyone saw the Wolverines score 10 points against Iowa, which does have a tough defense.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh discusses the offense after the 10-3 win over Iowa Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Harbaugh does like to deflect attention from his team when he deems necessary, and he’s been very good at it these last five years he’s been at Michigan. Perhaps he just didn’t want to discuss his offense after the Iowa game, so he shut down the conversation with the puzzling “hitting their stride” comment, a mic drop of sorts in Harbaugh's world, leaving everyone else to break down his comment rather than breaking down his offense.
That’s an effective approach if that is, indeed, what he was attempting. But going forward, the Wolverines have to determine a more effective tact on offense.
One thing of note: After a 51-yard completion to Nico Collins from Shea Patterson in the early part of the game, it seemed Michigan wasn’t looking for the deep route. Patterson said they left a lot of plays on the field, and he and Harbaugh said Iowa adjusted and took that way. And yet, Iowa safety Geno Stone told reporters “no adjustments” were made in the pass game by the Hawkeyes. So what gives?
Playing Illinois is going to be Rutgers-like and offer an opportunity to post some decent numbers. But the final six-game stretch is daunting, starting at Penn State, which is ranked No. 4 nationally in total defense. While Michigan sorts through its offense and focuses on how to make it well – improving the run game and run blocking would be a good start – the defense does actually seem to be hitting its stride.
Aside from holding Iowa to a field goal, the Wolverines had eight sacks of Nate Stanley, three interceptions and one fumble recovery. With 65 yards lost from sacks, the Hawkeyes were credited with one yard rushing. Michigan’s defense swarmed an Iowa offense ranked 29th nationally in total offense (465 yards). The Hawkeyes were also ranked 29th in rushing, averaging 217.5 yards.
“Obviously that was a defensive masterpiece,” Harbaugh said.
No hidden meaning there.
“(Defensive coordinator) Don (Brown) during the week said he might jump off a tall building if some of those isolation plays worked, because they really thought they had them," Harbaugh said. "Really felt the players had a great week of practice and knew exactly what to do, and they did it with great intensity and great effort. To hold a team to one yard rushing, that’s a masterpiece.”
Defensive ends Kwity Paye, Aidan Hutchinson and Mike Danna accounted for 4.5 sacks – Paye had 2.5 before leaving the game with an undisclosed injury to his left thigh. Linebackers Jordan Glasgow and Cam McGrone were in on 3.5 – Glasgow had two sacks.
The plan first and foremost was to stuff Iowa’s run game. Wisconsin walloped Michigan 35-14 but it was the run-game production that was the stunner. The Badgers had 359 rushing yards, including Jonathan Taylor’s 203 yards and two touchdowns – he had 143 yards and those two scores in the first quarter.
“We knew they were going to try to pound the ball down our throat,” viper Khaleke Hudson said. “They’re a similar type of offense to Wisconsin, so we knew they were going try to do the same plays they did.
“We knew we wanted to be stout in the run game. That’s the first thing you want to do is stop the run and force them to throw. We sacked him eight times and we had three interceptions. Everything we’ve been practicing for came up in the game. We didn’t let them determine what plays we were going to do, we determined what plays they were going to do."
After the loss to Wisconsin, Michigan’s was ranked 47th in total defense (343.7 yards) and 114th in rush defense (208.7). Those numbers improved after a 52-0 rout of Rutgers as Michigan moved to 22nd in total defense (295.8) and 89th against the run (168). After the win over Iowa, the Wolverines are 18th in total defense (288.8) and 50th in run defense (134.6).
“We came out very motivated because of that Wisconsin game,” said cornerback Ambry Thomas, who had a fumble recovery and interception against Iowa. “I’m pretty sure no one that’s with us wants that feeling again.”
Since then, the Wolverines have gone nine quarters without surrendering a touchdown.
“It was a wakeup call,” defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said of Wisconsin. “We had to get our stuff right and play as hard as we can and do our job."