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Michigan was horrible defending third downs against Iowa...until it decided to bring the heat

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What started as a disaster turned into a big strength on Saturday.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Iowa at Michigan

By the time the clock hit zero on Saturday, it was clear that Michigan’s defense was the sole reason the Wolverines were able to walk away with the victory. The issues with the offense were nothing new, and the list goes on and on, ranging from the play calling to the execution. This is not the type of performance (or lack of development) that anyone expected to see five games into the season. The other side of the ball, however, was much more encouraging.

Though the defense was extremely impressive, holding Iowa out of the end zone and notching four turnovers on the day, there were still some pain points early on. Particularly, the Hawkeyes were seemingly having their way on third down, entering halftime with a cushy 5-for-9 conversion rate. By the end of the game, this figure regressed to 6-for-17 overall (and 7-for-20 including fourth down attempts), but there were palpable frustrations from the first 30 minutes.

Familiar struggles

Iowa faced three third-and-6 conversions in the first half and picked up all three. Quarterback Nate Stanley continuously attacked the middle of the field, with receivers able to find a soft spot right near the line-to-gain on two consecutive first quarter conversions on the Hawkeyes’ only scoring drive, the second which is shown below.

The third pickup was a little more questionable, with the referees providing a generous spot even after a review. The coverage was decent, but Stanley was still able to put the ball where it needed to go and gave his team a chance for the first down. Third-and-medium is an area where this defense is good enough to own, and early on they did not do so.

While two of those conversions did help lead to Iowa’s only three points, they did not cost Michigan the game. However, there were two longer plays in the first half that are a bit more concerning. With 8:20 to go in the second quarter, the Hawkeyes were facing third-and-22 from their own 8-yard line after a sack and delay of game. Stanley decided to take a shot to wide receiver Brandon Smith, who ran a simple route against Lavert Hill, hauling in the pass for 34 yards.

This cannot happen for the Wolverines to have any sort of success. Hill is one of the best players on the team and should not be getting beat by a little hitch-and-go. Michigan is going to play a decent amount of man coverage, and that puts a lot of pressure on Hill. The cornerback made up for his mistake with an interception on the next drive, but this was a missed opportunity for great field position.

The last of the first half conversions came from third-and-10 with 2:47 to go in the second quarter. Stanley sits back in the pocket and waits for his receiver to get open on a crossing route across the middle. While this was also ultimately inconsequential, it was yet another example on the long list of Michigan’s failures against this type of route. Cameron McGrone is always a step behind here, and this third-and-long becomes an easy pickup.

Locking in

After conceding a third-and-15 at the start of the second half (a running back screen that went for 22 yards), Michigan’s defense found new life. The Wolverines stopped Iowa’s final seven third down attempts, six of which were at least nine yards to go. By consistently putting the Hawkeyes in passing situations, the defense was able to overcome some of its issues from earlier in the game and really step up when it most needed to.

The Wolverines were able to turn the tide by doing what they do best: being aggressive. A free Khaleke Hudson blitzing on third-and-3 caused an overthrow by a rushed Stanley, giving his receiver no chance. Later, a third-and-9 opportunity is similarly blown up thanks to a charging McGrone, who also caused a quick throw that had little hope for success.

Michigan continued to bring the pressure on third down, and this became the difference maker in the game. On both third-and-13 and third-and-24 with the fourth quarter winding down, the Wolverines gave Stanley no chance of even getting the throw off, sending rushers through the line and bringing down the quarterback right away. There is no chance for a deep throw or a crossing route if there is not enough time to even survey the field.

Pressure was the deciding factor on Saturday. The coverage was not perfect on third downs, and the middle of the field was left open a few too many times in key situations, but a successful blitz can cure these ailments pretty quickly. It is no secret that the defensive line has underperformed at times this season, but if Michigan can continue to disrupt quarterbacks like it did against Iowa, few offenses will stand much of a chance.