This wasn’t supposed to happen - Michigan playing for the Big Ten championship. Not this year. Not one year removed from a season in which the Wolverines stumbled to a 2-4 record. Not after an offseason rife with early departures, unexpected transfers and speculation surrounding head coach Jim Harbaugh’s future at Michigan. Most pundits pegged Michigan for somewhere between six and eight victories this season. ESPN gave the Wolverines a now infamous 0.7% chance of winning the Big Ten.
But here Michigan was. Led by a group of seniors Harbaugh calls his “Group of Eight,” Michigan’s players dedicated themselves to this season and this program. Back in July, I got a chance to meet with seniors Hassan Haskins, Aidan Hutchinson and Josh Ross. To a man, they stressed how important it was to go out on a better note. Not just on a personal level, but at a program level. They went on to talk about how much better the culture was this year and detailed the team’s goals - of beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten.
Such talk isn’t unusual. After all, what team doesn’t approach each new season with confidence and optimism? Michigan, however, quickly began to prove that its talk was more than just that. Michigan’s Cade McNamara has often said that this team is different than past Michigan teams. With each passing week - with each victory - you began to see how. And at no time was the difference more evident than when the Wolverines exorcised a decade’s worth of demons in a convincing and emotional 42-27 victory over Ohio State.
But while defeating Ohio State may have been the highlight of the season, it wasn’t the end of the season. Some questioned whether the Wolverines would have trouble moving on from the Ohio State game and be able to focus on Saturday’s conference championship game - a game in which the Wolverines would face an opportunistic Iowa Hawkeye team.
Michigan wasted little time showing it came to play, striking quickly and jumping to a 14-0 first quarter lead. Michigan first scored on a 67-yard touchdown run by Blake Corum. It was a play in which the only player on the field able to keep up with the speedy Corum was … quarterback JJ McCarthy, who surprisingly materialized 50 yards downfield to help block for Corum. “I’ve never seen a quarterback do that before,” a smiling Corum would say after the game. On its next possession - on its next offensive play - Michigan dialed up a halfback pass for freshman Donovan Edwards. Edwards connected with Roman Wilson for a 75-yard touchdown pass on a throw many quarterbacks would be envious of.
The two long touchdowns marked the longest run and pass that Iowa had surrendered all season. The two plays also staked Michigan to a lead it wouldn’t surrender. But that’s not to say it was easy going the rest of the way. In fact, for much of the second quarter, Iowa seemed to have the Wolverines right where it wanted them.
Playing Iowa is no picnic. The Hawkeyes have a stout and opportunistic defense and don’t mind playing field-position football. Keep the game close and wait for the opposition to make mistakes. It’s a strategy that has worked for Iowa all season - and it looked like it might be working Saturday night in Indy.
After surrendering those two quick scores, Iowa found its footing. Its defense stiffened. On Michigan’s final five drives of the first half, the Wolverines punted three times and were intercepted twice (granted, the second interception was a half-ending Hail Mary pass), spending much of the second quarter pinned deep in their end of the field.
It led to a strange vibe going into the half. Michigan held a 14-3 lead, but the momentum seemed to be with Iowa. Would Iowa turn this game into a fourth quarter nailbiter? Might the game be decided by a late turnover?
Not this day. Much like it did last week against Ohio State, Michigan came out swinging in the second half and quickly overwhelmed the Hawkeyes. Michigan scored four second half touchdowns while holding Iowa scoreless. Dominant on both sides of the ball, the Wolverines rolled to a 42-3 victory, securing their first Big Ten championship in nearly two decades.
Michigan has often used the term “complementary football” to describe its play this season, and that was the case again Saturday night. In the second half, Michigan’s offense adjusted to what Iowa was doing defensively and scored four touchdowns in five second half possessions. Michigan’s defense bottled up Iowa’s run game (holding 1,100 rusher Tyler Goodson to just 50 yards on the ground) and took the teeth out of Iowa’s passing game. The Hawkeyes eventually turned to backup quarterback Alex Padilla in hopes that a change at quarterback would provide some sort of spark, but Padilla could do little in the face of Michigan’s pass rush.
“They played a great game,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said of Michigan. “We knew this game would be a big challenge coming into it. Knew we’d have to play our best and make some things go our way. And obviously that didn’t materialize.”
With the victory, Michigan not only captured the Big Ten championship, but earned a berth in the college football playoff for the first time in program history. To claim the national championship, the Wolverines will have to get past the best two teams the SEC has to offer. A daunting challenge to be sure. But that’s a conversation for another day. Today is time for celebrating this Michigan team and what it accomplished.
“We know that there’s not one person who cares about Michigan more than Coach Harbaugh,” McNamara said after the game, still draped in confetti. “We’re just so happy that we were able to give him that joy because he deserves it.”
For his part, Harbaugh kept the focus on his players. “I love this team,” said an ebullient Harbaugh. “There’s no team I love more than this team. Every guy on the team in the team picture is going to be up there as part of Big Ten champion. We’ve got a banner in Glick Fieldhouse that’s going to say ‘Big Ten Champion’.”
It’s a banner that’s been a long time coming. And one that Harbaugh and his players - along with Michigan fans everywhere - will celebrate long after this season ends.