ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Losing this football game at Michigan Saturday was never out of the question for Iowa, but the way the Hawkeyes lost was thoroughly deflating.
An offense that had been a portrait in balance and efficiency through four games was robbed of its equilibrium by the Wolverines in Michigan Stadium, and the result was a 10-3 defeat. Seldom have the Hawkeyes given a defensive performance here like the one this day, and seldom have they given one like Saturday’s anywhere and come away on the short end.
What a waste. You hold any Wolverines team to 10 points and 267 yards in the Big House, you’ve got to come away with a big win. Oh, the euphoria that would have been in Iowa had the Hawkeyes come home with a victory here and a 5-0 record to take into the following Saturday home game against unbeaten Penn State.
Such is sports, and maybe the Hawkeyes will look back on this as their hiccup on the way to the Big Ten West title. Or maybe this will be viewed as the day a good team was revealed to be not a great team.
It will take time to process the fact that physicality and offensive line technique, two big blocks of the Iowa program’s pride and joy, took back seats to Michigan and often left quarterback Nate Stanley on his seat.
“Looking back,” said Hawkeye offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs, “(Stanley) would be on the ground after the play way too much. I take a lot of pride in not letting people hit him. I know I failed that today. The rest of the O-line probably would say they feel pretty crappy about that.”
The longer the game went, the wider the paths seemed to be from Wolverine defender to Stanley and the less fundamentally sound his blockers got.
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Iowa’s next-to-last possession was its hardest to stomach. A 31-yard pass play from Stanley to first-year freshman revelation running back Tyler Goodson took the Hawkeyes to the Michigan 25.
Then came back-to-back holding penalties for a first-and-30. A false start came on third-and-19, followed by a group sack for a 12-yard loss and a fourth-and-36.
It was Michigan’s eighth sack, helping make Iowa’s rushing total 1 measly yard. And oh yeah, it really was a fourth-and-36.
The Hawkeyes got one last chance, getting the ball with 1:35 left at their 43. The possession had nary a sack or penalty, but everyone was so jumpy from Michigan’s game-long pressure that the alleged drive was messy, fruitless, and a fitting end.
Iowa junior offensive tackle Alaric Jackson has been a good player in his career, very good. But he had missed the previous three games with a sprained knee, and this was the wrong time and place to try to shake off rust.
“I put the blame on the O-line, especially me as a player,” Jackson said. “My first game back, I wasn’t prepared for my best.
“I’m a team player. I should have prepared better, pretty much. It’s not anybody else’s fault.”
Stanley disagreed, and rightfully so. He got intercepted three times, and had a particularly egregious 8-yard loss early in the second half when he ran into a sack instead of throwing the ball away.
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It had to be maddening, since he completed 10 passes of at least 10 yards and five for at least 19, including a 34-yarder on a third-and-22. But not one drive, including the one in which they got their field goal, didn’t get bogged down at some point.
“I know this falls on my shoulders, too,” Stanley said. “I need to help (the linemen) out. I could have thrown the ball away a couple more times and not take sacks. That’s on me as well.”
So, no finger-pointing. That was an upside, though not nearly as uplifting as Iowa’s defense. It let Michigan turn four takeaways into a paltry three points. However, defensive end A.J. Epenesa saw only the chances his own unit didn’t seize.
“The ball was on the ground a lot today (two Michigan fumbles it didn’t lose),” he said. “We had opportunities to take the ball. We didn’t take advantage of them. We’re going to get better at that.
“We’ve got to start faster, we’ve got to start stronger. The first five minutes (almost seven, actually), they put 10 points up.”
The final 53 minutes, however, the Wolverines never drove deeper than the Iowa 16.
Such a winnable game. Such an opportunity lost.
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