Tell me where you've heard this before: Michigan opens Big Ten play with a close win against Indiana to stay undefeated. Hopes of a great season are abound, but a week later Michigan suffers a demoralizing loss to arch-rival Michigan State. Needing to get the season back on track, the Wolverines play Iowa a week later.
This is not only the script 2009 followed, but currently 2010 is playing out in exactly the same way. The Wolverines went undefeated during the non-conference portion of the schedule, which included an exciting win against Notre Dame. Then, as Big Ten play got underway, Michigan defeated Indiana thanks to a late touchdown. The undefeated season came to an end against Michigan State, however. The game didn't end in overtime this year, but it was just as demoralizing with the Spartans absolutely dominating Michigan. Next up for the Wolverines is a game against Iowa that will be a good indication of if 2010 will continue to play out like 2009.
Last year after losing to MSU, Michigan actually played quite well against Iowa, taking the Hawkeyes down to the wire in a 30-28 loss. Yes, it helped that Iowa played poorly early on (Ricky Stanzi gave Michigan a touchdown to start the game, after all.), but Michigan overcame multiple defensive breakdowns and a Tate Forcier concussion and still had a chance to win. Denard Robinson threw an interception on the final drive of the game, sealing the loss, but a year ago he was strictly a runner for the most part.
Iowa was beatable last season, and this year the game is at Michigan Stadium, so there's no doubt the Wolverines can win. The question is, can they overcome a style of play very similar to that of Michigan State and actually take down the Hawkeyes? It's a tough call, really.
Iowa doesn't run a spread offense and they're not very flashy on defense, but they get the job done. That is pretty much the exact style of Michigan State. The Spartans gashed Michigan on Saturday with a tremendous running game that helped set up the pass. Really any offense is going to gash Michigan's mediocre defense, but MSU executed a great game plan in the process. On defense, the Spartans don't have loads of speed or anything, but they contained Denard Robinson's running and forced him to pass. What did that do? Well, Robinson threw three interceptions, including two in the end zone, which turned out to be the biggest difference in the game.
Iowa's offense last year in the Michigan game followed a similar script. The Hawkeyes ran the ball quite a bit in order to set up the pass, although the running game actually wasn't too successful thanks mainly to Brandon Graham, who blew up Iowa's O-line on more than one occasion. When the Hawkeyes decided to go to the air, however, Michigan's defense in 2009 was very similar to what we have seen so far in 2010. Iowa had lots of success, especially going to its tight ends in third and long situations. The end result was an Iowa victory, which Michigan must prevent this year.
Throughout Michigan's undefeated start in 2010, comparisons were made to the 2009 season. Many shrugged them off as being inaccurate because of Denard Robinson and how great he was over the first month or so of the season. While that is a valid point, it is just as valid to question if he can continue playing at a high level against the top-tier of the Big Ten. Although he did put up 301 yards against MSU, those three interceptions were a killer and were a sign that he still has a lot of room to develop as a quarterback. While he was able to make plays against a team like Indiana, the Michigan States of the world are going to make things much tougher, so it's important that he rebounds against Iowa.
For the Wolverines as a team, it's important that Iowa serves as a rebound game to get the season back on track. A year ago that was almost the case, but Michigan lost and ended up finishing the season on a seven-game losing streak to Big Ten teams. This year, if Michigan loses its second straight game by going down to Iowa, it is going to be a rough bye week. Michigan has the week off before playing Penn State to close out the month, and going into the bye with two straight losses and all signs pointing to a repeat of 2009 would not be good for anybody, especially Rich Rodriguez.
On homecoming, with the crowd on its side, Michigan has to take advantage of the situation at hand. While the loss to Michigan State was awful for more reasons than one, the good news is that it was only one loss. Although Iowa is a tough matchup for sure, by playing another solid team the Wolverines have the opportunity to prove their doubters wrong and answer with a big win that would set the tone for the rest of the season.
Looking ahead, Michigan closes out October with Iowa and Penn State. After that are games against Illinois and Purdue. Although every matchup in the Big Ten is tough, I see four winnable games right there. Iowa is a home game, and Michigan almost won against the Hawkeyes on the road a year ago. Penn State is in a downward spiral, and although that is a primetime game, it is definitely winnable. In the first week of November, Illinois will provide a tough test after showing serious improvement with a close game against OSU and a win at PSU, but again, that is winnable. Finally, Purdue is reeling thanks to a number of injuries and can certainly be beat, even in West Lafayette.
I'm not saying Michigan will win these games by any means, but the point is the opportunity is there. While Michigan struggled through the month of October with loss after loss after loss a year ago, this year it has the chance to prove that 2009 does not equal 2010. That all starts with beating Iowa on Saturday, though. A victory obviously doesn't guarantee that 2010 won't include more rough patches, but at the very least it would give Michigan bowl eligibility and the fan base a sign that the team is making strides in the right direction. A loss, on the other hand, would give the anti-Rich Rodriguez crowd even more ammo for what would be a tumultuous bye week, to say the very least.
It won't be easy, but Michigan has to move on from Saturday's loss against Michigan State and focus on beating Iowa. While it seems like the sky is falling right now, the good news is there is still plenty of football to be played. A year ago that did turn out to be a bad thing, but Michigan, and Rich Rodriguez especially, can prove that this will not be another collapse by simply beating Iowa. A win would give the Wolverines their first bowl game in the Rodriguez era, and perhaps more important than anything, it would get the season back on track headed into a week off.