IOWA CITY — Heading into Saturday’s matchup, Michigan knew it couldn’t take Iowa’s offense lightly.
While much of the attention was spotlighted toward the Wolverines’ offense facing off against the Hawkeyes vaunted defense, there was still another chess match happening on the other side of the ball, one that made the No. 4 Michigan football team weary.
“Iowa is definitely a team you can’t sleep on, regardless of how they’ve been doing,” junior defensive lineman Kris Jenkins said Tuesday. “They’re going to give us everything they got.”
The Wolverines answered the call, holding the Hawkeyes to 14 points, including a garbage time touchdown. But while they got the job done, they hardly put Iowa’s offense in a chokehold — instead relying a combination of timely sacks and costly Hawkeye penalties to grind out the win
The Daily breaks down the good, the bad and the ugly from the defensive performance.
Coming out of the Maryland game, the defense line was asking itself a lot of questions. They failed to generate much pressure, gave quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa lots of time to run around in the pocket and had surrendered 128 rushing yards.
Against Iowa, it attacked with much more force.
The Wolverines generated four sacks, including two from senior defensive end Mike Morris. Most impressively, though, they tamped down Iowa’s ground game. Michigan sank its teeth in, holding the Hawkeyes to just 66 yards on the ground, including six tackles for a loss.
“There was a lot of extra effort there,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Guys were doing a really good job on the edge. But Mazi Smith and Kris Jenkins inside were doing a tremendous job forcing things to the outside and getting the pressure up the middle that allowed those edges to come through at the end.”
The Wolverines plan was to clamp down in the trenches and force Iowa into more uncomfortable passing situations — and the strategy worked. The defensive line held up its end of the bargain, and the Hawkeyes’s offense, unable to rely on their usual strength at running back, looked unthreatening most of the day.
The defensive line came into the game with something to prove, and showed they had made some strides since last week. The pass coverage, on the other hand, made no such progress.
Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras has been slandered for his ineptitude at the helm of the offense all season. But despite getting booed by his home crowd on multiple occasions, Petras actually had his best game of the season against the Wolverines.
Petras was 21-31 for 246 yards and a touchdown, his first game this year with over 200 yards through the air. One area of concern for the Wolverines going into the game was how the linebackers would do covering tight ends over the seam — a soft spot in Michigan’s coverage all season.
They failed that test once again, giving up four catches for 84 yards to sophomore tight end Luke Lachey. Overall, they gave up eight pass plays of 15 yards or more.
The secondary had a porous day — and Harbaugh had a laundry list of things he wanted to correct.
“We gave us some inside breaking routes,” Harbaugh said. “That’s an area we can look to improve on. They hit us on an outbreak route, a sale route and then came back with a dig route. (They) had us on our heels.”
Ultimately, the secondary rose to the occasion when it mattered most, stopping the Hawkeyes on their final two critical drives.
But for the most part, the linebackers and secondary looked shaky in coverage against what’s widely perceived as one of the worst offenses in FBS. And that doesn’t bode well for the matchups still left on Michigan’s slate.
The truth was, regardless of the hyperbole about Kinnick Stadium, Iowa had to play a perfect game to pull the upset.
They didn’t, but Michigan’s defensive struggles allowed them to hang around longer than they probably should’ve.
The Wolverines shut out the Hawkeyes in the first half and barely let them tread across midfield. But they lacked the same firepower when they came back out of the locker room.
At one point up 20-0 in the third quarter, Michigan had a chance to put its foot down. Instead, the Hawkeyes dotted their way up the field, moving the ball with ease and scoring a touchdown to keep the door open for a comeback.
After the Wolverines went three-and-out, Iowa again marched down the field with little resistance. The defense ultimately forced the turnover on downs, but the bend-don’t-break approach made the fourth quarter much dicier than expected.
In both conference games, Michigan has walked away unsatisfied with its defensive performance — listing areas it needs to improve.
The season is still relatively young, but it’s fair to wonder if the Wolverines persistent defensive struggles are fixable or just weaknesses they’ll have to live with.