By Bryan Fischer
FOX Sports College Football Writer
The margins in college football are perilously thin every week.
In the Big Ten, that is accentuated even more with every passing Saturday this season. In a conference built on decades of playing good defense and running between the tackles, the lack of offensive production at most programs across the conference is startling.
The dichotomy is stark: You can either move the ball to the end zone or you can’t. Sometimes offense simply wins out over great defense.
The Wolverines notched their first win in Iowa City since 2005 by a not-at-all-that-close score line of 27-14, further cementing their status as the biggest impediment to No. 3 Ohio State’s conference supremacy. The reigning Big Ten champions have prevailed the past two weeks not because of their reloaded, tough defense but rather their ability to come up with that key score down the stretch.
Highlights: Michigan holds off Iowa
No. 4 Michigan defeated the Iowa Hawkeyes in their first road game of the season, 27-14.
“Really gritty performance,” Jim Harbaugh said after his first win at Kinnick Stadium as a player or coach.
The Hawkeyes entered the week leading the country in scoring defense, allowing just 5.8 points per game. They hadn’t allowed a score on the ground all season either.
Michigan not only put up four more points than Iowa’s past four opponents combined, it found pay dirt with a pair of rushing touchdowns. Tailback Blake Corum’s 20-yarder in the fourth quarter was illustrative of winning those fine margins too — bursting through a stacked box before dropping a slight hesitation move one-on-one with a defender on his way to the house.
Young quarterback J.J. McCarthy (18 for 24, 155 yards, 1 TD) has yet to break out in Big Ten play so far, but his ability to keep plays going with his legs and hit intermediate passes helped move the chains several times — a key factor in the team’s first road trip of the year.
Blake Corum’s nasty juke ices it
Michigan received a key late touchdown thanks to the talent of the Wolverines’ star running back.
On the other end of the spectrum is Iowa, which has an offense that might be best known for … punter Tory Taylor.
Even taking the four sacks off the ledger, Iowa rushed for less than 3.5 yards per carry. The Hawkeyes didn’t convert a third down until well into the second half and notched a scoreless first half at home for the first time since 2012.
Creativity? There’s none for the black and yellow. Every drive feels like you’re on your way to a root canal as they lurch slowly toward being three yards short of the sticks. Calls for a new offensive approach do not appear to be slowing down but gaining momentum.
Not being able to run the ball effectively puts even more pressure on quarterback Spencer Petras, who threw for, remarkably, a season-high 246 yards and a touchdown, but only found success late in the fourth quarter with the game more than decided at that point.
Nine different Hawkeyes managed to catch a pass, but only three were for more than 20 yards. The state of the passing game was best summed up the lone time the team managed to mount a sustained drive — marching down near the goal-line early in the final frame, only to throw short on fourth-and-2 to turn the ball over on downs. To add insult to the lackluster play design, the team was flagged for offensive pass interference.
Michigan, meanwhile, was seemingly rubbing it in as to how easy things were on a day in which their hosts crossed midfield just four times.
“We’re still learning, we’re still getting better,” added Michigan defensive end Eyabi Okie after the performance.
If it makes Iowa fans feel any better, at least they can take solace in the fact that they’re not the only ones having this issue in the conference.
Chase Brown burns Wisconsin with 49-yard TD
Illinois took a 31-10 lead over Wisconsin after Chase Brown ran in a 49-yard touchdown.
Wisconsin dropped to 2-3 overall and 0-2 in Big Ten play after mustering just eight rushing yards in a loss to Illinois. Playing without star tailback Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota failed to do any damage in a loss to Purdue as Tanner Morgan threw three back-breaking interceptions.
Rinse and repeat at pretty much every campus beyond Columbus and, perhaps, State College. Offense is hard to find.
After 24 years and 293 games at Iowa, Kirk Ferentz knows what success looks like. His 2002 team that won the league and made it to the Orange Bowl was honored at halftime on Saturday. Quarterback Brad Banks delighted the locals by holding up a trophy, lightening the mood after a miserable first two quarters.
The fact that he did so with graying hair highlighted how long it’s been since there’s been a genuine joy in an Iowa offense. Two decades is a long time, and it feels even longer watching some offensive efforts around the league.
In the Big Ten and the rest of college football, margins are fine as it is. If you’re limited offensively though, you have no room at all.
Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan all seem to understand this. Thanks to scheme and talent, they have some leeway every time they take the field. For everybody else though, life is spent behind the sticks and, often, the scoreboard.
Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.
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