With 1:35 left in the fourth quarter, Michigan’s offense asked its defense to step up one more time.
The unit had been bailed out all afternoon — the offense mired in a bewildered mess, the defense responding emphatically. Rinse, repeat. The whiplash hadn’t hindered defensive coordinator Don Brown’s unit. To that point, Iowa had a single rushing yard. Its quarterback, Nate Stanley, had been picked off three times. The Wolverines were flying. Eight sacks. Twelve tackles for loss.
Up 10-3, they just had to do it one more time. And, really, was there ever a doubt?
“When the game’s on the line, that’s what we want,” said senior defensive end Mike Danna after the game. “We wanted the defense up. Everybody on the sideline had juice. The coaches had juice. It was all about energy, and that’s what we want. We wanted our backs against the wall. We had the opportunity and came out on top.”
Despite advantageous field position and a fourth-down conversion to keep their brief hopes alive, the Hawkeyes succumbed to the Wolverines’ swarming defense one last time.
With Iowa’s hopes growing ever fleeting, faced with a fourth-and-10 from the Michigan 44-yard line, Stanley dropped back once more and quickly felt the heat of multiple incoming pass rushers. He somehow managed to release a left-handed prayer to his checkdown back, who was stopped well short of the line to gain. It was a fitting capper to one of the best defensive showcases of the Jim Harbaugh-Don Brown era.
“Obviously that was a defensive masterpiece,” Harbaugh said. “Our defense, Don Brown, the coaches, the players. Don called a great game. They were very well prepared. Player-wise, it was just obvious from play one to the last play of the game, everybody was hustling and running and playing with great effort.”
Michigan’s 12 TFLs marked the 18th time in Brown’s tenure the defense registered double-digit TFLs in a single game. Perhaps most notably, the Wolverines held Iowa’s purportedly vaunted bruising rushing attack to one yard, just the fourth time in recorded history the Hawkeyes had been held to one or fewer rushing yards in a game.
The latter point underscores the progress this defense has made since the 35-14 drubbing in Wisconsin two weeks ago, when the Badgers marched through this defense with remarkable ease. The 358-yard disparity between those outputs tells the entire tale.
The players knew coming into the week that Iowa would try to mimic some of the looks that gave them fits two weeks prior. Brown challenged his defense to rise to the challenge. There’s no parsing the obvious: Challenge accepted.
“I think we all just played our asses off on the defense. We knew it was power Iowa, the big dogs who just run it down your throat,” said sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, with a noticeable chide when rehearsing those cliches. “We showed ’em what kind of run defense we had.”
Added Harbaugh: “Don, during the week, he said he might jump off a tall building if some of those isolation plays work. They really thought they had them, and really thought the players had a great week of practice, and knew exactly what to do, how to do it, and did it with great intensity and great effort.
“To hold a team to one yard rushing, that’s a masterpiece.”
The running game wasn’t the only facet which the defense emphasized in the lead up to the game, though. Stanley came into the game without having thrown an interception all season — and having been sacked more than four times only once in his career. Brown’s defense picked off Stanley thrice and sacked him eight times.
“We knew Stanley, coming into this game, didn’t throw any picks,” Hutchinson said. “After watching all the film, you see he never really got hit. After today, we smacked him and that showed what happens when you apply pressure on that guy.”
And still, in spite of a thoroughly-dominant defensive effort, Michigan’s defense stepped onto the field with just over a minute and needed a stop. They’d been on the field for 32:27 to that point. They’d allowed just six of 17 third- and fourth-down conversions. They’d played 13 drives and allowed 17.6 yards per drive and three points.
In short, they’d done all they’d been asked. So what was one more?