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Bob Wojnowski and Angelique Chengelis break down the Michigan-Iowa game Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News

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Ann Arbor – If the Wolverines play like this, with an attacking, smothering defense, they’ll be hard to beat. Of course, if they also play like this, with a sleepy, sluggish offense, they’ll be easy to beat.

Ah, the construction and confusion continues. Michigan was half-dominant and half-dormant Saturday, and held on to beat a tough Iowa team 10-3 to stay afloat in the Big Ten race. You put it all together and the Wolverines (4-1) are halfway decent about halfway through the season.

It was good enough on this day, and it shouldn’t be downplayed anytime you outlast Iowa. But it won’t be good enough against several remaining opponents. Michigan averted disaster because its defense turned Iowa’s Nate Stanley into a disaster, blitzing and bludgeoning as no one had against the No. 14 Hawkeyes. The Wolverines collected eight sacks and three interceptions against a senior quarterback who hadn’t thrown an interception all season.

No matter how stodgy Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa offense can be, this was a masterful defensive effort, outside of a few long third-down conversions. On the final three drives, needing just a touchdown to tie, the Hawkeyes were sacked three times, committed three holding penalties and threw five incompletions. The game ended with Stanley enveloped by Khaleke Hudson and Jordan Glasgow, desperately switching the ball to his left hand for a dump-off completion well short of the first down.

Jim Harbaugh was far more interested in talking about the “masterpiece” created by Don Brown’s defense, and insisted the offense was making progress. It certainly wasn’t evident against a solid Iowa defense, although once it was obvious the Hawkeyes couldn’t move the ball, Michigan seemed to dial down its own urgency, perhaps afraid of mistakes.

Harbaugh said that’s not what they did, and said he has full confidence in first-time coordinator Josh Gattis, as well as quarterback Shea Patterson. He’s supposed to say that, especially after a victory. But there weren’t many wow plays, outside of a 51-yard pass to Nico Collins on Michigan’s second drive, which set up Zach Charbonnet’s 2-yard run for the only touchdown. That came with 8:33 left in the first quarter, made it 10-0, and from there, it looked pretty much like every Michigan-Iowa game ever.

“That’s how spectacular the defensive front was, that’s why I called it a masterpiece,” Harbaugh said. “Because they were put in tough situations, and in tough situations they responded.”

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UM quarterback Shea Patterson said the offense took what the Iowa defense gave the Wolverines Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News

They absolutely did, holding Iowa to 1 yard rushing with all the sacks factored in. Brown reprised his Dr. Blitz persona, and linebackers Glasgow (two sacks) and Cam McGrone (1.5) joined the sack attack with Kwity Paye (2.5).

Unleashing and unloading on a less-mobile quarterback like Stanley is one thing. Doing it against Penn State, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State might prove to be another. That’s why Harbaugh can’t escape questions about his offense, not until we see it play error-free against a quality opponent.

“I thought (the offense) took what was there,” Harbaugh said. “I thought Shea in particular took what was there, and sometimes there wasn’t anything there. He managed the game extremely well and did the job on the turnovers (one interception, no fumbles). … I really do think they’re hitting their stride. I’ve got great faith in our players and in our coaches.”

I’m not sure how Harbaugh defines hitting a stride, because the offense didn’t hit much, finishing with 267 yards, three-for-13 on third downs. Charbonnet rushed for 42, mostly on plows up the middle. Patterson wasn’t overly accurate – 14-for-26 for 147 yards – and rarely took shots downfield. He only got things going on one drive in the fourth quarter, with consecutive completions to Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black. That preceded a rare field goal miss by Jake Moody and led to a sweaty finish.

Regular backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey was out with a concussion, but going forward, a changeup is something Harbaugh and Gattis might consider. Michigan visits Illinois next, and can’t get stuck in another grinder.

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“That’s just football, how it goes sometimes,” Patterson said. “You’re gonna have days like that, when the defense is playing lights out and you just stay patient and don’t try to put them in tough situations with turnovers.”

The game plan became more basic as the game unfolded. Against this opponent, with Michigan only a slight favorite, the strategy had some merit. But we’re five games into the season, and outside of the obligatory pummeling of Rutgers, the Wolverines haven’t displayed anything resembling speed or open space.

The 35-14 loss to Wisconsin two weeks ago was the big revelation, and the defense showed it’s capable of responding against a similarly physical foe. With Iowa’s run shut down, Michigan’s secondary was stellar.

“We knew they were gonna try to pound the ball down our throats, try to run the same type of plays as Wisconsin,” Hudson said. “They’re not really comfortable passing the ball, so we wanted to be stout in the run game, force them to throw, do whatever we could for them to be uncomfortable. “

The Hawkeyes looked uncomfortable all game, as Michigan’s defense hit with unrelenting ferocity. Until (or unless) the other half of the team legitimately hits a stride, the Wolverines can’t feel very comfortable themselves.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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