Early this week, Don Brown offered his defense a challenge.
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley had thrown eight touchdowns and zero interceptions on the season. The Michigan defensive coordinator told his guys to try for at least two picks.
But when sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson dug into the film, he noticed something else: Stanley rarely got hit. With ample time in the pocket, of course his throws were clean. So Hutchinson and the rest of the pass rush vowed to pressure Stanley and force him to make plays.
Eight sacks, three interceptions and a 10-3 Wolverines win later, it was clear: Stanley failed the test.
“After today, we smacked him,” Hutchinson said. “And that showed what happens when you apply pressure on that guy.”
In a game Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called a “defensive masterpiece,” it was the Wolverines’ vaunted pass rush that provided the most luster. Brown frequently called blitz packages, and no matter who was tabbed with chasing down Stanley, they got to him.
Five different players — Hutchinson, junior defensive end Kwity Paye, fifth-year senior linebacker Jordan Glasgow, sophomore linebacker Cam McGrone and fifth-year senior defensive end Michael Danna — had at least one sack. Michigan’s eight sacks were not only the most in one game since 2016, they were more than Stanley had been sacked in the Hawkeyes’ previous four games combined.
Brown knew that Iowa was a bruising, run-it-down-your-throat type of team. He saw how much the Wolverines had struggled against a similar style against Wisconsin two weeks ago. But the Hawkeyes didn’t have a Heisman-candidate running back like Jonathan Taylor, so Brown predicated his game plan on one thing: stopping the run.
And as senior viper Khaleke Hudson put it, “the results talked for themselves.” Iowa finished the game with one rushing yard. Michigan forced Stanley to pass, and when he dropped back, the Wolverines brought the blitz. They constantly forced the Hawkeyes into third-and-long situations, making Iowa’s offense as one-dimensional as the Badgers made Michigan’s.
“They’re not really comfortable passing the ball,” Hudson said. “They’re not really a spread team or anything like that. So just stopping the run and doing whatever we can for them to be uncomfortable.”
Iowa was so uncomfortable that, in an effort to stop the Wolverines’ rush, they committed two consecutive holding penalties on one drive in the fourth quarter. That, combined with a false start, set up third-and-19 at Michigan’s 39 — at which point Stanley was unceremoniously sacked again.
“That’s huge,” Harbaugh said. “That’s how you get the one yard rushing, when you can get those big plays, those big tackles for losses and sacks. Brought a lot of pressure, plus it led to a lot of penalties. Our guys were getting held quite a bit and that showed up in the game.”
The Hawkeyes had one last shot to win the game in the fourth quarter. They drove into Michigan’s territory with the clock winding down, and on fourth-and-10, Stanley dropped back. The Wolverines brought the blitz. Some tried to strip the ball out while others aimed to bring Stanley down.
Somehow, Stanley escaped, throwing the ball with his left hand to an open receiver who seemed to have lots of space in front of him. But Michigan still stopped the play for a loss, mostly due to the pass rush pushing Stanley back so far even a catch had little chance. Then, the offense kneeled out the clock for a win.
“Everybody had to do their jobs, stick to their assignments,” Danna said. “We didn’t need any Supermans or any superheroes.”
He was referring to the defense, and how it was a team effort that led to the win. But really, the Wolverines — with a paltry offensive showing — did need a superhero, and as Stanley faltered under pressure again and again, the pass-rushers might as well have been wearing capes.