5 keys to victory: Michigan's receivers catching on just in time (with prediction)
ANN ARBOR -- Getting anyone around the Michigan program to say the receivers have posted their best games the past two weeks is like trying to get Brady Hoke to say anything about Denard Robinson other than he's "day to day."
That doesn't mean it's not true.
The No. 23 Wolverines (7-3, 5-1) have racked up 520 passing yards the past two weeks, more than the 482 they rolled up in their five previous Big Ten games combined. Jeremy Gallon had a career-best seven catches last week, and Roy Roundtree added his first 100-yard game in two seasons.
Roundtree will be the first to say Michigan receivers pride themselves on blocks -- the corps actually tracks the number of knockdowns per game for each player -- but the receivers' primary function remains catching passes.
And Michigan needs that more than ever, with Robinson sidelined with an injured nerve in his throwing elbow.
That two-game stretch happens to coincide with Devin Gardner's insertion at quarterback, and that's not a coincidence. The junior has shown better touch, accuracy and decision making in the passing game than Robinson.
But the flip side of losing Robinson is Michigan doesn't have his game-breaking rushing ability, instead depending on the tailbacks for establishing a rushing attack. And they haven't done much this year.
So that places added importance on the receivers to help keep Michigan's passing game churning Saturday against Iowa (4-6, 2-4).
So far, they've been up to the challenge.
Roundtree has become more active in the passing game, registering 64 yards receiving two weeks ago and 139 last week against Northwestern, his two best games of the season.
He hauled in a miracle 53-yarder in the closing seconds against the Wildcats to set up the game-tying field goal. Michigan won in overtime.
Sure, the ball glanced off a defender and into his hands off the carom, another break in a series of them for the receivers the past two weeks, but there was a time they didn't make many plays of any variety. This is improvement.
"Watching (the film), it was just crazy how it happened," Roundtree said. "But God works in mysterious ways, and I guess the wind blew my way."
Roundtree said he plans to paste a photo of the catch on his wall, next to the one of his game winner last year against Notre Dame.
"Yeah, it's going next to it," Roundtree said with a smile. "Got to so when I have kids, they can say, 'Oh, my daddy did something.'"
Gallon had seven catches against Northwestern and four against Minnesota, his two best totals of the year. He hooked up with Gardner on double-moves down the right sideline in both games, and made an acrobatic touchdown on a corner fade against the Gophers.
"Jeremy really has matured as far as understanding the playbook and just getting more time, because me and him split reps last year," Roundtree said. "So this year, being a starter, he's getting more reps. I feel like he's really matured into being a starter."
The receivers are performing at a high level with Gardner, and the stats bear that out.
They picked up 246 yards receiving against Northwestern and 227 yards against Minnesota. They averaged 132.5 yards in the eight previous games with Robinson.
Michigan's receivers are more active than ever. And with nearly 60 percent of the rushing production likely to wear a headset Saturday, the Wolverines hope that trend continues if they are to beat Iowa for the first time since 2006.
"I know I haven't beaten Iowa," Roundtree said. "It's something I need to get off my shoulder."
Four other keys to Saturday's game against Iowa:
Go for the kill
Listen, let's not sugar coat this: Iowa is not a good team, and Michigan should beat it. Handily.
But the Wolverines need to learn to slam the door on inferior teams, something they struggled to do in their past two home games.
Michigan needed a last-second field goal to knock off a Michigan State team that is last in the Legends Division at 2-4, then a miracle 53-yard pass and last-second field goal just to force overtime against 3-3 Northwestern.
Iowa is worse than either of those teams, but did show with a victory in East Lansing that it has a pulse if given a chance. Michigan can't allow that chance.
Protect the ball
Iowa does a lot of things poorly -- you don't get to 4-6 otherwise. But turnover margin is not one of those things.
The Hawkeyes are plus-12 on the season, which leads the Big Ten and is 11th nationally. Michigan, conversely, is 10th in the league at minus-five.
The Wolverines have done a better job of protecting the ball since the Notre Dame debacle, but Gardner does have a pick in each of his first two starts. Entering just his third game at quarterback, he's prone to throwing more, no matter how good he's looked.
Protect the quarterback
Iowa's corners are pretty good, and Micah Hyde (12 bass breakups) likely is the team's best player. That puts more pressure on Michigan's offensive line to protect the quarterback, allowing time for the receivers to gain separation and the quarterback to find them.
The Hawkeyes have allowed some big passing days this year, but that's due largely to their defensive line not getting pressure. They're last in the Big Ten in sacks with 11.
That's allowed offenses to find creases in Iowa's new zone look, some of it spawned by miscommunication between the linebackers and safeties. Michigan can exploit that with Gardner, but he needs time to make those reads.
Stop the run
Iowa didn't do anything fancy offensively in last year's 24-16 win against Michigan -- just took tailback Marcus Coker and rushed him right into the teeth of the defense time and again.
And time and again, Coker found success. He rolled up 132 yards and two touchdowns, helping Iowa possess the ball late and hold off the Wolverines.
Coker is gone this year, and Iowa is averaging just 124.0 rushing yards per game, due in part to the massive attrition and injury that have afflicted the tailback position the past couple years.
But Iowa's passing game has struggled as well, and Michigan's pass defense ranks No. 1 in the country. If the Hawkeyes are to amount any kind of offensive threat, it likely will have to come on the ground and Michigan needs to assure that doesn't happen.
This is simple: Iowa's offense is woeful, ranking near the bottom of the Big Ten in several offensive categories, including yards (11th), rushing (10th) and scoring (10th). Michigan's defense has been largely terrific, ranking among the top three in total and scoring defense.
The Wolverines' greatest weakness on defense is the spread -- it hasn't allowed more than 13 points to a non-spread, non-option team since the opening week of the season -- and Iowa is about as pro-style on offense as they come.
It's difficult to see how the Hawkeyes are going to score.
Michigan's offense seems to have found a rhythm with Gardner at quarterback, and the Wolverines should have little problem separating themselves from the overmatched Hawkeyes. Michigan 31, Iowa 10