The Day – Big Ten tilt: Michigan continues playoff bid, title vs. Iowa
Indianapolis – Iowa opened this season as a trending pick to finish second in the Big Ten West. Michigan wasn’t ranked in the preseason poll and wasn’t even supposed to claim the East Division title.
Too bad for the forecasts.
Two of the traditional conference powers will play in Indianapolis on Saturday for their first conference crowns since sharing the title in 2004 – and in Michigan’s case, a possible playoff bid.
It’s the title game that hardly anyone expected.
“A lot of people were pretty low on us,” Iowa security Jack Koerner said. “They said we were overrated, things like that. We knew who we were, we knew our identity as a team.”
The outsiders did not appreciate the Wolverines, second (11-1, 8-1, n ° 2 CFP) either. Lingering questions about coach Jim Harbaugh’s future prompted him to accept a pay cut and change defensive coordinator after experiencing a dismal 2-4 in a 2020 season without fans.
Tipsters didn’t think much would change. Narrow fumbles to Rutgers and Nebraska and what seemed like a disastrous loss to the state of Michigan only reinforced those notions.
“There was a lot of noise outside,” center Andrew Vastardis said. “But inside, we trusted each other, we trusted the coaches.”
It made a difference.
The Wolverines rebounded from their only loss with three straight wins. Then, just when critics thought they would lose to rival Ohio State yet again, Michigan surprised everyone but themselves with a dominant performance against the Buckeyes to win their first trip to the title game. Big Ten, which started in 2011.
Michigan inexplicably finds itself within one win of Harbaugh’s first Big Ten title and potentially two wins from a return to Indy in January for a shot at its first national championship since 1997.
“Everything we’ve looked at, every defense goal, every team goal we’ve looked at, we’re doing these things,” said linebacker Josh Ross. “Everything is in front of us and now it’s so exciting to have this opportunity this week.”
Korener and his Iowa teammates understand.
But instead of taking it after a demoralizing 24-7 home loss to Purdue, a 20-point loss to Wisconsin two weeks later and a shoulder injury that sidelined quarterback Spencer Petras against Northwestern, the 15th Hawkeyes (10-2, 7-2, No. 13 CFP) rallied.
Alternate quarterback Alex Padilla had three straight wins before Petras returned to the second half last weekend and saved Iowa from a 15-point deficit in Nebraska. Wisconsin’s loss to Minnesota sealed the division title and now the Hawkeyes believe they can end their title drought.
“November football tends to be the most important time, and right now it shows for us,” said Hawkeyes running back Tyler Goodson. “We’re undefeated in November. We’ve been strong. We’ve faced a lot of adversity, whether it’s losing two games in a row or the injuries we’ve suffered. Whatever it is, we find a way to fight back. “
Some wonder how the Wolverines will react to last week’s emotional victory, their first in a decade against the Buckeyes and just their second in 17 games. As fans stormed the pitch and Michigan relished the post-game party, Harbaugh said this week was all business. There is a good reason for this.
“There isn’t a single guy on this team who has a ring,” said quarterback Cade McNamara.
Harbaugh has also decided to give the $ 500,000 he has already earned as a bonus and any additional money will be used to help reimburse employees in the university’s sports department who suffered voluntary or mandatory pay cuts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Iowa is well known for producing strong defenses under the guidance of longtime coach Kirk Ferentz. And in a league full of stifling units, this year’s defense stands out for one major reason – take out.
The Hawkeyes run the Football Bowl subdivision
with 22 interceptions and are tied for third with 28 overall turnovers. Eleven players have managed at least one assist this season, and with two more interceptions, Iowa can break the single-season school record set in 1986 and tied in 1987 and 2008.
Michigan’s reshuffled defense delivered against the Buckeyes and Harbaugh credited the addition of new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald for the turnaround.
When Harbaugh started looking for a replacement for veteran defensive coordinator Don Brown, he called his brother. Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh recommended Macdonald as his linebacker coach.
“He said, ‘I’ve got the guy for you,’” Jim Harbaugh said. “I’ve talked to a lot of people, listened to a lot of people I trust in football, but none are more important than my brother’s opinion. And he was right.”
AP Sports writer Larry Lage in Detroit and AP freelance writer John Bohnenkamp in Iowa City, Iowa, contributed to this report.