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INDIANAPOLIS – The Michigan Wolverines needed an affirmative win after taking their key hurdle of the season with a commanding win over Ohio State.
And late Saturday night, in a cool Lucas Oil Stadium in front of the largest crowd in the history of the Big Ten championship game, Michigan followed with a 42-3 to battle for the conference title across Iowa and cement a spot for the Wolverines in their first college football playoff.
The Big Ten championship game was the final of one of the most momentous days of college football, with teams battling for one of four semi-finals in the playoffs. The selections made by consensus of a committee will be announced on Sunday. Oklahoma State No. 5 fell to Baylor in the Big 12 championship, rendering his claim virtually invalid. Alabama, which finished third on the committee going into the championship game of the Southeastern Conference, brought the No. 1 Georgia a modest defeat in a playoff preview. No. 4 Cincinnati easily beat Houston for the American Athletic Conference title. That left # 2 Michigan, a program lost in a year-long cycle in which it had come far but not far enough, but driven by its win over the Buckeyes and its chances of a national title.
The Wolverines (12-1) foiled any attempt by the Hawkeyes to bend but fail to break the end zone on Saturday’s defense, and Iowa (10-3) ended with one blow. The Hawkeyes lost two games in a row to Purdue and Wisconsin in late October, but remained undefeated in November and made their first conference championship appearance since 2015 (Iowa shared the conference title with Michigan in 2004). But an anemic offensive and missed opportunities proved doomed against the Wolverines.
Under coach Jim Harbaugh, Michigan had grown used to underperforming, camouflaged by the ability to mow down its schedule outside of conference and beat up smaller Big Ten opponents. But far too often – by the standards of the high stakes world of college football – it would lose the big games. Harbaugh’s first season at Ann Arbor included a loss to then No. 7 Michigan State in 2015. The Wolverines were blown out by Penn State (then No. 2) in 2017 and lost to the Nittany Lions in 2019 to a touchdown.
And, of course, Michigan was 0-6 against Ohio State during Harbaugh’s tenure earlier this season.
Last year the Wolverines went 2-4 in a season that could have caused irreparable damage to Harbaugh’s legacy. Michigan’s notoriously vaunted defense looked nothing like it. The Wolverines lost every one of their home games. A coronavirus outbreak ended their season before they could face the Buckeyes.
Yet Michigan extended Harbaugh in January (despite taking a significant pay cut) and reworked the program to reflect the possible decline in patience among Wolverines fans after the flop last year. He brought six new coaches to his staff, including a new defensive coordinator.
The result was a defense that is one of the best in the country this season. Michigan allowed 319 yards per game and 4.78 yards per game before rolling past Iowa.
The Wolverines defense held Iowa 104 yards 33 attempts. Michigan got to the quarterback once, on a 10-yard sack from Aidan Hutchinson, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year who many pundits believe should be a Heisman Trophy finalist.
“We exceeded all expectations. Nobody would have thought that we would make it, ”said Hutchinson after the game. He took home the most precious player award in the game. He added, “And we did it very dominantly.”
Iowa won the coin toss and unsurprisingly sent its defense, which had been its strong point all season, first. The decision seemed to give the underdog Hawkeyes the jump-start he needed to capture the game’s early momentum. After forcing a Michigan three-and-out, the Hawkeyes marched quickly across the field, only to ruin their promising drive by missing a 33-yard field goal.
Michigan easily scored a goal on the next drive. Running back Blake Corum took a 67 yard handover for the touchdown, with a gaping hole created by the Wolverines offensive line, a shifting sidestep and a downfield block from backup quarterback JJ McCarthy surprisingly close to the neon orange pylon. It was the longest rush the Hawkeyes have allowed this year.
It took the Wolverines a single game to silence Hawkeyes fans again in the sold-out crowd at Lucas Oil Stadium. In a trick play, running back Donovan Edwards took a backward pass from quarterback Cade McNamara and hit a wide-open Roman Wilson in crotch for a 75 yard score.
The Hawkeyes reacted by stalking the field with ease again, but could not use their gate-to-go opportunity and contented themselves with another field goal.
It looked like the game was slipping away from the Hawkeyes quickly. Michigan’s next dive began with a reverse gear that took recipient AJ Henning 29 yards. But two games later, quarterback Cade McNamara heaved a pass behind tight end Erick All, and Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell waited and grabbed the game’s first snack.
Michigan finally found its running game in the third quarter and built a methodical drive that opened up Iowa’s defense for a big game. Luke Schoonmaker, a close end, jumped in the air to cover a 27-yard catch that made way for Hassan Haskins, who had a good block on the right edge, to go into the end zone and what appeared to be putt the game out of reach at 21-3.
Iowa replaced quarterback Spencer Petras on the Hawkeyes’ second drive of the third quarter, and backup Alex Padilla led Iowa across the field in a time-consuming drive that ended with a resounding fourth downstop on the Michigan defense.
The Wolverines blocked a punt, used a flea flicker, and knocked the ball off the one-yard line to add 21 buffer points in the fourth quarter.
Many of the more than 67,000 spectators in the stadium, who were as stormy and energetic as in the first minutes of the game, had calmed down in the fourth quarter. The others, wrapped in their team’s corn and blues, roared as Harbaugh was shown on the stadium screens jumping into the arms of his players.
“There’s no team I love more than this team,” said Harbaugh after the game. He added, “It’s just the way they approach it. They do their best every day. Just that easy. Nobody thinks it’s that simple, but it’s that simple. “