Not enough negative plays for Iowa football's defense in loss to No. 4 Michigan

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — For all the effort invested in whether Iowa's offense could somehow show a competent product against Saturday's Big Ten beast, a Kinnick Stadium celebration was only coming if the Hawkeyes defense delivered another herculean effort alongside.

Phil Parker's unit has kept Iowa in several games it did not belong in, both this season and last. But on this day, with a well-oiled Michigan attack plowing through the Hawkeyes with little resistance until the end, even Iowa's respected defense showed too many cracks on a forgettable home afternoon.

By the time No. 4 Michigan exited Iowa City with a solid 27-14 win, the box score featured several figures Iowa's defense isn't used to seeing. Sporadic negative plays with few stressful snaps wasn't the upset recipe the Hawkeyes intended to deliver.

"We knew what we were up against today and what we had to do," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Really, we couldn't force only one bad play on their part. ... We were really hoping we could get a little bit more going there."

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy, right, runs to the sideline away from tackles from Iowa defensive back Riley Moss (33) and linebacker Seth Benson (44) on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

Not only were the eye-popping defensive moments required for a stunner lacking — a big turnover here, a reinvigorating touchdown there — Iowa had trouble simply generating any negative plays until much too late. Michigan remained ahead of the sticks most of the day and had just a handful of tense moments in front of Iowa's raucous crowd.

"We knew they were coming in with a good run game," linebacker Jay Higgins said. "So it's on the (linebackers) and to get down and hammer some gaps just to free up some d-linemen. Michigan does a really good job of double-teaming that d-line. So if we could've gotten up there and freed some guys and got some knockbacks, that's what we were trying to do."

It wasn't until deep into the second half that Iowa finally ignited offense with defense the way it's had to for much of the season. Deontae Craig's third-quarter sack and forced fumble — which stuck Michigan with a 21-yard loss inside its own 5-yard line and was the lone “bad play” Ferentz referred to — eventually flipped the field for Iowa and quarterback Spencer Petras.

It's no coincidence that sack set up the Hawkeyes’ first and only meaningful score.  

But aside from that, Iowa only mustered two tackles for loss on short runs that were largely inconsequential to the outcome. For a while, Michigan's only glaring negative play required a turf-monster assist — when McCarthy stumbled backwards untouched and fell to derail a first-half drive.

Michigan piled up 327 total yards on 66 plays, most of which came in a first half where the Wolverines went up two scores and zapped tons of juice out of a packed Kinnick Stadium waiting to burst. Running back Blake Corum (29 carries, 133 yards) headlined a ground attack that scored the first rushing TDs against Iowa this season, going straight at the core without linebacker Jestin Jacobs operating in the middle. A rotational group that mainly included Higgins and Logan Klemp couldn't hold up over the course of four quarters.

“We couldn’t get off the field,” said Ferentz, whose defense surrendered four scoring drives that covered at least 50 yards with double-digit plays. “And if you can’t stop the run, it’s tough. It’s easy to call plays when you can run the ball. Not minimizing what they were doing, but the pressure they put on you from my vantage point, you see both those receivers last week running by DBs. So if you match up on them one-on-one, you’re living dangerously there with a guy who can throw it.

“It’s a lot of cat and mouse — and it’s tough — but they did a really good job of executing very well too.”    

Part of Saturday’s problem lies with the elite expectation Iowa’s defense has created in buoying this program of late. The defensive effort against Michigan was stout enough if there was a competent offense on the other side.

But that isn’t the case here.

And neither was a riveting upset.

Dargan Southard is a sports trending reporter and covers Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.