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7 reasons for optimism after Michigan football's top-15 win over Iowa

No. 19 Michigan holds No. 14 Iowa to just three points in defensive battle

Cameron McGrone #44 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates a fourth quarter sack against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Michigan Stadium on October 05, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michigan won the game 10-3. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football earned a much-needed boost this weekend, outlasting No. 14 Iowa to pick up its first signature victory of the season.

The win has yielded mixed reactions from the Michigan fan base because the Wolverines struggled offensively, scoring just 10 points and getting shut out the final 53 minutes.

But there are plenty of positives that came from the game, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Weeks ago the program was left for dead, and now there are, at the very least, some reasons for optimism.

1. QB pressure

For the first time all season, Michigan's defense got to the quarterback consistently, and it did so against a team that hadn't given up much pressure in the first four games.

Nate Stanley had only been sacked six times in the first four games. That number more than doubled over the weekend, as Michigan sacked him eight times for a total loss of 65 yards.

Nate Stanley #4 of the Iowa Hawkeyes is sacked by Jordan Glasgow #29 of the Michigan Wolverines in the fourth quarter at Michigan Stadium on October 05, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michigan won the game 10-3. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

It was likely the difference in the game. Iowa went toe-to-toe with Michigan offensively, but the negative plays ultimately led to long third-down situations that forced the Hawkeyes to take chances.

That's a big reason Michigan was able to pick off three passes against a quarterback who had eight touchdowns and no interceptions heading into the game.

Kwity Paye was unstoppable, registering 2.5 sacks and two quarterback hurries on his own. Fellow defensive linemen Aidan Hutchinson and Mike Danna also got in on the fun, picking up a sack each and combining for 3.5 tackles for loss.

Jordan Glasgow, who had two sacks in the opener against Middle Tennessee State, got two more this weekend. He's become a surprising pass-rushing specialist for Don Brown this season.

New starting linebacker Cam McGrone pitched in 1.5 sacks as part of a six-tackle effort.

Michigan finished the game with eight sacks, 13 tackles for loss and six quarterback hurries. It was complete chaos for Stanley in the backfield, and that's why the Wolverines escaped with a win.

2. Run defense

Racking up minus 65 yards on eight sacks helped Michigan's rushing defense look otherworldly, but even without those numbers, the Hawkeyes couldn't get anything going on the ground.

Iowa, which had been averaging 217.5 rushing yards per game, finished the game with 1 rushing yard on 30 attempts. Even if you take away the sacks, Iowa had 66 rushing yards on 22 attempts, which is well below its previous average of 5.18 yards per run.

The defensive line was excellent in this regard, especially with Hutchinson, Danna and Paye combining for six tackles in the backfield. But the linebackers and safeties stepped up to make it nearly impossible for Iowa to move the chains on the ground.

Khaleke Hudson led the team with 11 tackles, while Glasgow and McGrone chipped in nine and six, respectively.

Safeties Josh Metellus and Daxton Hill had six tackles each, while Brad Hawkins had three.

Michigan was aggressive enough to sack the quarterback eight times, but not reckless enough to give up huge plays on the ground. If the Wolverines can make opposing offenses one-dimensional, they will be competitive in every game.

3. Speed at defensive weak points

Coming into the season, Michigan had major questions at linebacker and safety. On Saturday, those questions were finally answered for good with McGrone and Hill.

After Michigan was decent but not outstanding at those spots through three games, McGrone and Hill got more playing time against Rutgers. They looked like they belonged, but it's hard to draw solid conclusions from a Rutgers game.

This weekend, McGrone was flying all over the field, much like Devin Bush did at middle linebacker the last two years. He was disruptive in the backfield and swarmed to the ball on runs and short passing plays.

Daxton Hill #30 of the Michigan Wolverines carries the ball after making a catch against the Army Black Knights on a fake punt during the first half at Michigan Stadium on September 7, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

His speed allows him to go sideline-to-sideline on the second level and changes the entire complexion of the Michigan defense.

It was only a matter of time before Hill earned more snaps on defense. He was a five-star recruit and the No. 1 safety in the nation last recruiting cycle and showed his elite athleticism on special teams.

Now, Michigan can't afford to take his speed off the field.

Hill had six tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass defended against Iowa -- a veteran team that makes a living off exploiting defensive mistakes. The true freshman was up to the task and was the playmaker Michigan expected on the recruiting trail.

4. Healthy wide receivers

When Michigan landed a trio of stud wide receiver commits in the 2017 class, it looked like the offense would be unstoppable for years to come.

That simply hasn't panned out, and one of the major reasons is those three players have never been healthy at the same time.

Tarik Black got injured three games into his career as a true freshman, and that was before Nico Collins ever got into a game.

Black's sophomore season was derailed last August by another foot injury.

It wasn't until the start of this season that he was at 100% health and ready to make a major impact. Unfortunately, an offseason injury to Donovan Peoples-Jones once again left Michigan without one of its top weapons.

Peoples-Jones finally returned at what appears to be full strength last week, and now Michigan has its full arsenal of wide receivers on the field.

Collins caught three passes for 63 yards this weekend, including a 51-yard bomb that set up the only touchdown of the game. Peoples-Jones led the team with four catches. Black was targeted four times and came up with one catch for 20 yards that set up what should have been a game-clinching field goal.

Nico Collins #4 of the Michigan Wolverines makes a first quarter catch against D.J. Johnson #12 of the Iowa Hawkeyes at Michigan Stadium on October 05, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Collins, Black and Peoples-Jones give Michigan a dangerous trio the rest of the season, and along with Ronnie Bell, should eventually headline a great passing attack, if Michigan can figure out the quarterback situation.

5. Quarterback mobility

One of the biggest knocks on Michigan's offense through the first three games was Shea Patterson's seeming unwillingness to keep the ball on option plays. Over the last two weeks, he's been a little more willing to use his legs.

Patterson ran the ball three times against Rutgers, scoring a touchdown on all three plays. That means he finished with the maximum possible yards on those three runs, and it makes sense to limit the number of hits a quarterback takes in a blowout.

Patterson ran the ball five times against Iowa, and he was effective when he decided to take off. His runs went for seven, 15 and 10 yards in the first half, and his final two carries came on the final drive when Michigan was trying to bleed the clock.

Shea Patterson #2 of the Michigan Wolverines throws a second quarter pass against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Michigan Stadium on October 05, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

He gained four yards on each of those last two carries, so he was consistently effective with his legs.

Patterson hasn't been an accurate passer this season, but it would help open up his receivers if he's a threat to run. On the season, he's gained 120 yards and three touchdowns on 20 runs.

Overall, Patterson's running strategy is looking similar to last year's, when he would pick and choose his spots and pick up some critical gains in big moments. If so, that would be a rare positive for the Michigan offense.

6. Fumbling correction

Michigan's inability to hold onto the football early in the season was downright alarming, as it lost seven fumbles in the first three games.

But since the Wisconsin debacle, Michigan has gone two straight games without losing a fumble, though it has put the ball on the ground a couple times, only to recover it.

Michigan turned the ball over nine times in the first three games and was lucky to survive with just one loss. It's no coincidence the defense has been dominant the last two weeks when the offense isn't putting it in bad situations.

Rutgers and Iowa have combined to score just three points on 413 yards against Michigan's defense the last two games. If the improved ball security continues, Michigan can continue to ride its defense and stay in games.

7. Wisconsin might just be amazing

This final reason for optimism doesn't have as much to do with Michigan as it does with Michigan's only loss.

Since jumping out to a 35-0 lead against the Wolverines three weeks ago, Wisconsin has continued to roll. It survived a sloppy letdown game against Northwestern last week despite 79 yards in penalties and a pair of turnovers.

This week, Wisconsin went back to demoralizing another weak opponent, outgaining Kent State 520-124 in terms of overall yardage.

Jonathan Taylor #23 of the Wisconsin Badgers rushes for a touchdown during the first half against the Michigan Wolverines at Camp Randall Stadium on September 21, 2019 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

The Badgers are 5-0 and have outscored their opponents by a combined score of 217-29. That's an average score of 43.4-5.8.

Regardless of the level of competition, that's complete dominance. Wisconsin looks like one of the best teams in the country.

Michigan has plenty of issues to work out, particularly on offense. But what happened in Madison might have just as much to do with the Badgers being underrated early in the season.

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