IOWA CITY, Iowa –- There goes Marcus Coker, rumbling right for 13 yards and a touchdown early the fourth quarter. That happened a lot on a gray November day in Eastern Iowa. But this rumble—and that’s what Coker does; he doesn’t run–was the fatal blow, pushing Iowa’s lead to 24-9 in what would be an impressive 24-16 triumph over No. 13 Michigan.
It was fitting that the big and physical Hawkeye running back delivered the fatal salvo on this day, a day when Iowa notched a third win in a row over Michigan for the first time ever. The sophomore finished the game with 29 backbreaking carries for 132 wear-down-a-defense yards and two touchdowns, watching the maligned defense make a goal-line stand to preserve victory in the waning seconds.
A week after rumbling for 252 yards and two touchdowns at Minnesota, Coker continues to solidify his status as the top running back in the Big Ten. But, more importantly, Iowa continues to solidify its status as a top contender for the Legends Division championship.
If Iowa wins out, it will be headed to Indianapolis for the inaugural Big Ten championship game. Yes, even with losses to the likes of Iowa State and Minnesota, Iowa (6-3 overall; 3-2 Big Ten) still controls its destiny.
Does Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz even allow himself to peek the corner?
“Only if we’re idiots,” he said. “What we’ve got to do is worry about next week. So I hope we don’t have any idiots on our team. We’ll talk about that tomorrow, but we’ve got a tough game coming in here next Saturday, I know that.”
Back in August, not even the most rabid Hawkeye fan worth his gold-and-black stripped overalls could have seen Iowa in control of its destiny in the Legends Division (see the standings) with three games to go.
Most felt Nebraska was the favorite in the division. But, here’s Iowa, smack dab in the middle of an exciting race even after that demoralizing 22-21 loss last week at Minnesota, which Ferentz admitted the team never may have gotten over while preparing for this game.
“I doubt it,” he said. “You’d have to ask our players, but I think it was lingering with all of us a little bit. Losses stay longer typically, and wins stay longer with immature teams. But I don’t think we have an immature team right now.”
Iowa joins Michigan State and Penn State as lone Big Ten teams that control their own destiny.
Iowa will welcome a struggling Michigan State team that has allowed an aggregate 79 points the last three games (26.3 ppg) to Iowa City next Saturday in what is the biggest game in the Big Ten next weekend. The Spartans, who in addition to struggling on defense are having issues running the ball, are coming off a narrow 31-24 triumph at home over Minnesota a week after getting stuffed 24-3 at Nebraska.
After the visit from Michigan State comes a game at Purdue for Iowa followed by the regular-season finale at Nebraska.
For Michigan (7-2 overall; 3-2 Big Ten), the loss means any hope of winning the Legends Division probably is lost. In fact, it wouldn’t be a shock if the Wolverines lost their last three games: at Illinois; Nebraska; Ohio State.
“It’s still November,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “There’s lots of game left.”
The nation may have gotten carried away with Michigan’s 7-1 start. Yes, the Wolverines are good. But they really only have won quality win (Notre Dame).
This remains a work in progress, as Hoke still has some heavy lifting to do before Michigan is an elite Big Ten team that’s capable of seriously competing for the conference title. In case you were wondering, the Wolverines haven’t won the league crown since 2004.
The Michigan defense has some personnel issues, particularly at linebacker and along the line. Coordinator Greg Mattison would like to blitz and attack more, but he knows the limitations of some of his players make that a risky proposition.
“At times, we rose up and played pretty good third- and fourth-down defense,” said Hoke, whose team was averaging 34.8 points but was held to its second-lowest scoring total of 2011 since tallying just 14 in a loss at Michigan State.
On offense, the line still isn’t up to Michigan standards. There’s a lack of depth—and bulk—not allowing the Wolverines to be as physical at the point of attack as the staff would like.
And quarterback Denard Robinson isn’t getting better as a passer, which further limits the offense and makes it easier for opponents to defend.
On this day, Robinson struggled, hitting 17-of-37 passes for 194 yards, two touchdowns, one interception. He also was limited to 55 yards rushing on 12 carries, as Michigan had just 323 yards vs. a Hawkeye defense that entered the game ranked ninth in total defense in the Big Ten (402.3 ypg).
“There are always six to eight plays in a game that are really going to define (who wins) when you’re playing a good football team, when you’re playing a team on the road,” said Hoke. “You can think back and there are six to eight of those plays that really determines who executed and who didn’t.”
Aside from Robinson, who else on this Wolverine attack scares defensive coordinators? There’s a lack of playmakers on the edge and at running back, as the search remains for a top-flight ball carrier, a commodity that Michigan hasn’t possessed since Mike Hart, who ran for over 5,000 yards between 2004-07.
Iowa? It has an elite back in Coker, who notched his fourth consecutive 100-yard rushing game, eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark (1,013) today and just may carry the Hawkeyes all the way to Indy.
“That’s a very physical, tough, athletic defense that we played,” said Ferentz. “Marcus, you’ve got to earn those yards. It’s amazing. I looked, he got 4.6 a carry, and that’s hard work. I thought he started hitting stride there in the Northwestern ballgame (41-31 win on October 15 when Coker ran 22 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns) and I think he’s in the gear that we’re hoping for.”