Jim Harbaugh felt no need to wait for questions.
Walking into the press room Saturday afternoon, he had a “special guest” beside him and a message to deliver.
The “special guest” was junior cornerback Ambry Thomas, a man who he introduced with a few laudatory sentences. The message didn’t need any introduction.
“Obviously, that was a defensive masterpiece,” Harbaugh said, still adjusting his seat at the podium.
As Harbaugh ran down the masterpiece’s exemplars — Don Brown’s game plan, the pass rush, the run defense, the secondary — his confidence in Michigan’s defense emanated.
And after dispatching No. 14 Iowa in a 10-3 slugfest that moved the 19th-ranked Wolverines to 4-1 overall and 2-1 in Big Ten play, it’s easy to see where the confidence comes from.
All week, the Hawkeyes were lauded as a replica of the Wisconsin team that routed Michigan, 35-14, two weeks ago. That game prompted wholesale dismissal of the Wolverines’ once-vaunted defense. Michigan’s response: not so fast.
“Don called a great game, they were very well prepared,” Harbaugh said. “And player-wise, it was just obvious from play one to the last play of the game that everybody was hustling and running and playing with great effort.”
Brown’s challenge to his defense in this prove-it week was to intercept Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley twice. Through four weeks, Stanley had been among the best statistical quarterbacks in college football, with eight touchdowns and no interceptions.
He finished Saturday with three.
“They’re not really comfortable passing the ball, they’re not really a spread team or anything like that,” said senior linebacker Khaleke Hudson. “So (it was) just stopping the run and doing whatever we can for them to be uncomfortable.”
Beneath Stanley’s stats, the Wolverines knew he couldn’t carry their offense without an efficient ground game. So Brown’s preparation focused on the run, snuffing out the Hawkeyes’ ISO and power schemes in a way that Michigan’s defense failed to against the Badgers’ counter-heavy scheme in Madison.
“Don, during the week, he said he might jump off a tall building if some of those (ISO) plays worked cause they really thought they had them,” Harbaugh said.
Rooftops around Ann Arbor, consider yourselves safe. Iowa’s final rushing totals: 30 carries, one yard.
“We knew it’s the power Iowa, the big dogs who just run it down your throat,” said sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson. “So we showed them what kind of run defense we have.”
Michigan needed every part of its defense’s dominance.
Early on, it looked as if the offense might be able to follow up its 52-point showing against Rutgers with a repeat against an opponent with a pulse. After an early field goal off a fumble recovery, Shea Patterson led off the next drive with a 51-yard post route to Nico Collins, showcasing the downfield passing ability that has only fleetingly popped its head above water all season.
Five plays later, freshman running back Zach Charbonnet ran for his fourth touchdown of the year.
That was with 8:33 to play in the first quarter. Michigan didn’t score again.
“Sometimes, it’s gonna be like that,” Patterson said. “We were really fortunate that the defense came out and played the way they did, kept us in the game the entire time. … We left a lot out there. Gotta start finishing in the red zone.”
Yet, among it all, the Wolverines kept their advantage on the scoreboard.
For that, they had their defense to thank. Each time Iowa entered Michigan territory, it was stymied on the edge of field goal range. Sometimes it came as a result of their own undoing, with penalties and questionable play-calling. At others, it was an unavoidable consequence of the Wolverines’ eight sacks against an offensive line that was touted as a poor man’s version of Wisconsin’s. Poor indeed.
“I’m not gonna lie, it felt pretty smooth on the field,” Hutchinson said. “It felt like everyone was doing their thing.”
Still, kept afloat by Michigan’s anemic offense, the Hawkeyes had one final chance, taking over at their own 43 with 1:35 to play. After a fourth-down conversion on the first set of downs paved the way for three straight incompletions, Brown dialed up a blitz on fourth-and-10 with the game on the line.
In the huddle, Hutchinson knew it was going to work as soon as he heard the playcall. Hudson was just excited for his shot at the quarterback.
Seconds later, that’s exactly what he got, storming Stanley and forcing an emergency left-handed dump off that amounted to a hope and a prayer.
The answer: Not today.