Michigan football wins Big Ten title with 42-3 win over Iowa, College Football Playoff next
INDIANAPOLIS — Trailing by 18 points in a game his offense barely participated in, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz gave a final roll of the dice. He benched quarterback Spencer Petras partway through the third quarter and turned instead to Alex Padilla, whose most recent outing against Nebraska saw him complete six of 14 passes for 76 yards.
And for a moment, the Hawkeyes flickered with a rare, sustained drive, marching 60 yards on 13 plays to claw their way across midfield and into the red zone for the third time. The game hinged on fourth-and-3 from the 15-yard line.
Buoyed all season by a defense repaired, restored and recharged through the arrival of coordinator Mike Macdonald, whose NFL-style scheme freshened the staleness from a previous regime, the Michigan football team leaned again on its 34-year-old wunderkind. He’d devised a plan that limited an offensively challenged Iowa squad to a single third-down conversion in nine attempts during the first two quarters. He’d smothered the Hawkeyes’ running game to the tune of 3.2 yards per carry.
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More important than all of that is what Macdonald has done for the psyche of this defense, infusing the players with an advanced understanding of X's and O's while accentuating their strengths on weekly basis. His influence reverberated on the game’s most critical play when Iowa resorted to trickery for what would have been a throwback pass from Padilla to a tight end who leaked out of the formation after faking a block. But cornerback Vincent Gray — arguably the most maligned U-M defender in a 2020 campaign defined by downfield inadequacies — read it beautifully and blanketed the intended receiver. The pass rush converged on Padilla to force a checkdown well short of a first down.
"Man, we defied all expectations," edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson said. "Nobody thought we could do this. Nobody thought we could ever do this, especially not this season. And, man, we did it. And we did it in a very dominant fashion."
It was all U-M needed in a game that still had a quarter remaining. So dominant was Macdonald’s defense and so inept was the Hawkeyes’ offense that another half, or two or three, still wouldn’t have been enough to narrow the margin. Such a comprehensive beating — Michigan 42, Iowa 3 — left plenty of time for the maize-and-blue faithful to revel in the school’s first Big Ten title since 2004. These Wolverines, led by their resilient coach, Jim Harbaugh, secured both a championship and the right to play for one more in the College Football Playoff.
Petras and Padilla combined to complete 19 of 37 passes for 175 yards and an interception. Tailback Tyler Goodson, who amassed more than 1,100 yards this season, was held to 50. The Hawkeyes went three-and-out (or four-and-out) more often (six times) than they moved the chains on third down (five times). Hutchinson, who scored his 14th sack of the season, was named the game's MVP.
"I love this team," Harbaugh said. "There's no team I love more than this team. But it's the same qualities. I think back to the (San Diego) team we had in 2005 and 2006 and the Stanford team in 2009, 2010 and the 49er teams, '11, '12, and '13. It's just the way they approach it. They give it their best every day. And then you just — just that simple thing. Nobody ever thinks it's that simple, but it's that simple. There are a thousand other little things that go into it, but when you're around a group of guys and you watch them making sure that they give it their best, their very best, you know, every single day."
On a night when Macdonald’s defense soared, the offensive contributions were largely distilled to a pair of big plays in the first half before a flurry of scores when the game was already out of reach. Running back Blake Corum, who suffered a foot/ankle injury in a win over Indiana and returned against Ohio State last week, chipped in the kind of game-breaking run the offense lacked in his absence. Corum accelerated across the line of scrimmage midway through the first quarter before cutting to the right and forcing an Iowa defensive back to whiff. He found a new gear as he broke into open space down the sideline — a gear he lacked when defenders caught him during a 55-yard scamper last week — and thrust U-M in front with a 67-yard score.
Just as impressive as Corum’s open-field juke was the superior blocking from his teammates at all three levels. Right tackle Andrew Stueber and tight end Luke Schoonmaker opened a hole at the line of scrimmage. Wide receiver Roman Wilson, whose limitations as a perimeter blocker stifled his playing time last season, stoned a defender on the outside. And then came quarterback J.J. McCarthy looping around the right side of the formation for an all-out sprint down the sideline that both escorted Corum to the end zone and forced two Hawkeyes to collide. Wideout Mike Sainristil leveled a third for good measure.
It’s a play that embodied the type of next-level effort players and coaches had mentioned when describing why this group of Wolverines was different from the Harbaugh teams that wilted in prior seasons. So much of the program’s self-described culture change was difficult to explain, relying instead on cliches about brotherhood, work ethic and a stronger sense of commitment dating to offseason workouts in January. But the idea of a backup quarterback careening down the sideline to impede defenders 50 yards downfield paired a real-world visual with a season’s worth of culture-laced rhetoric.
"It's the framework for how a team should be, relational, giving everything you got for the guy beside you," center Andrew Vastardis said. "You know, the expectation for how the season goes is going to be high. But I think the framework, the expectation is more so how the team operates within itself, like the brotherhood, the family, the relationships. And, I mean, it's been — we've put on a clinic of that this year with our brotherhood, how we care about each other, how we play for each other. And obviously goals, like accomplishments, all that outside, I think the framework to accomplish all that is what I just talked about."
Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis began sprinkling breadcrumbs on the opening possession. His first play from scrimmage was a swing pass to Wilson for a gain of 7 yards. The image of that play lingered in the minds of Iowa’s defense two possessions later, when Gattis called an identical action with running back Donovan Edwards. Only this time, Edwards, who had blockers in front just like Wilson did, pulled up before turning the corner and heaved a ball to Wilson for a 75-yard score down the right sideline.
An early 14-0 lead was more than enough to stave off the Hawkeyes, but Michigan bookended the game with several eye-catching plays in the fourth quarter that produced three more scores. There was a blocked punt from Cornelius Johnson and a one-handed grab by Schoonmaker. A diving touchdown by tailback Hassan Haskins, whose pair of scores set a school single-season record (20), and another one-handed catch from tight end Erick All, who snared a pass with his left hand for an insult-to-injury kind of score.
Quarterback Cade McNamara completed 16 of 24 passes for 169 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Haskins and Corum combined for 130 yards and three scores.
By the time it ended — after the Wolverines racked up nine quarterback hits, four tackles for loss and a sack; after Petras clutched his wounded ribs and Padilla never stood a chance; after the offense produced a miniature highlight reel in the closing moments; and after the crowd belted a rendition of “It’s great...to be...a Michigan Wolverine!” to the delight of U-M’s players down on the field — a cooler of liquid was dumped on the coach who orchestrated it all.
Michigan is going to a national semifinal with Harbaugh leading the charge.
"Nobody's owed anything," Harbaugh said. "Nobody's entitled to anything. But, as I said, when you're around a group of guys that attack everything the way they attack their school work, their practice, and they want to give it their very best, you got a good feeling it's going to happen."