The first half of Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game between Michigan and Iowa played out like, well, like an Iowa game. A defensive struggle that was long on defensive stops and punts and short on first downs and explosive plays.
Michigan took a 10-0 lead into the locker room, but seven of those points were set up by an 87-yard Semaj Morgan punt return - the longest punt return in Big Ten Championship game history and the first punt return of Morgan’s career. Were it not for Morgan’s big play, it could have been a 3-0 halftime score.
An offensive showcase, it was not. Through 30 minutes, Michigan accumulated just 111 yards of total offense and recorded seven first downs. For Iowa, those numbers were 61 yards of total offense and two first downs. And with only ten combined incompletions stopping the clock, the half seemed to go by in a blur.
The way the first half played out shouldn’t have been much of a surprise, however. Anyone who’s watched Iowa play this year knows what the Hawkeyes like to do. Slow the game down. Ugly it up. Stay close, and more often than not, find a way to win late. It’s a blueprint that’s propelled Iowa to ten victories and its second Big Ten Championship game appearance in three years.
In other words, down 10-0, Iowa had the Wolverines right where it wanted them.
Not that Michigan appeared concerned. Watching the Wolverines play Saturday night, you got the sense that head coach Jim Harbaugh and his team believed that if they played things close to the vest, stayed patient and didn’t make any mistakes, they would ultimately prevail. Survive and advance, as they say.
You also got the sense that while Iowa was still in the game trailing by ten, there was no manner of magic that would allow the Hawkeyes to come back from a three-score deficit. If Michigan could tally an early second-half touchdown, the Wolverines would effectively put the game - and the conference championship - on ice.
It didn’t take long for Michigan to break through and get that score. And in a game that featured two of the nation’s top defenses, it should have come as little surprise that it was Michigan’s defense that made the big play.
On Iowa’s first possession of the second half, a blitzing Mike Sainristil forced his second fumble of the game, stripping Iowa quarterback Deacon Hill. Michigan’s Josh Wallace scooped up the loose ball and after an official review (the play was initially ruled an incomplete pass), Michigan had possession inside Iowa’s ten-yard line.
If it wasn’t a surprise that Michigan’s defense made the big play, it also shouldn’t have been a surprise that it was Sainristil who made the play. “When a play has to be made, when the magic needs to happen,” Harbaugh said after the game, “Mikey (Sainristil) makes it happen. He’s been a stalwart. He intercepts. He makes the big hit … causes a fumble. Just an incredible player.” Indeed, the fifth-year senior and one-time wide receiver has become one of Michigan’s most valuable players, and on this night, was named the game’s MVP.
Michigan wasted little time taking advantage of Sainristil’s heroics, with senior running back Blake Corum finding the end zone the next play. “The best six-yard touchdown run I’ve ever seen,” Harbaugh would say. It was Corum’s 24th rushing touchdown of the season and 55th of his career - both Michigan records. It was also, for all intents and purposes, the ballgame.
From that point forward, the defenses continued to rule the action, but quarterback J.J. McCarthy and Michigan were able to make just enough plays to gain just enough yards to put kicker James Turner in position to kick three more field goals. Turner was four-for-four for the game. His final kick, a 50-yarder, closed out the scoring and gave Michigan a 26-0 victory.
If there’s an unsung hero for Michigan this season, it’s Turner. Taking over for the greatest kicker in program history is a daunting task, but Turner has handled it with aplomb. The Michigan native has connected on 16 of 18 field goal attempts on the season, including going three-of-four from 50-yards or longer.
After the game, Michigan players were asked about mistakes they might have made and the points the offense left on the field. Harbaugh was quick to point out that Iowa’s defense had a lot to do with Michigan’s offensive performance. “That’s a heck of a defense,” Harbaugh said of an Iowa defense that ranks among the nation’s top five in both scoring and total defense. “We’re looking forward to (looking at the tape and) learning some things from having played such a good defense.”
And that was the theme of the night for Michigan - looking forward. There was celebration, but it was subdued. The focus was clearly on the future.
“To have back-to-back-to-back Big Ten championships … it feels great,” Corum told reporters. “But … the job is not finished.” It was a sentiment shared by Corum’s teammates.
“It feels great, obviously, to be back and do it again,” McCarthy added. “This was one of our goals, and it feels great to accomplish it. But there’s more that we want to accomplish.”
“This is why guys Blake and I came back, “Sainristil said, “And I can’t wait to continue this journey with these guys.”
For Michigan, that journey continues in Pasadena, where the Wolverines continue their quest for a national championship with a semi-final match-up against Alabama.
But that’s for another day. On this day Harbaugh and the Wolverines closed out the final “classic” Big Ten season as three-time defending champions.