IOWA CITY — In all the classic fang-and-claw struggle between No. 1 and No. 2 in college football, there may never have been a more dramatic finish than Iowa’s 12-10 victory over Michigan on Saturday.
Thousands of delirious fans from the all-time Kinnick Stadium record crowd of 66,350 poured onto the field after Rob Houghtlin’s 29-yard field goal split the uprights on the final play.
And what was Houghtlin thinking as he knelt over the kicking tee before the fate-filled kick?
“I was praying,” the slender junior from Glenview, Ill., replied seriously. “I was praying to the Lord, asking for a little strength and direction.”
As soon as Houghtlin’s kick was in the air, both he and his holder, Mark Vlasic, leaped in the air with arms upraised, pre-empting the call by the officials.
And what was Coach Hayden Fry’s first reaction?
“Praise the Lord!” the Iowa mentor told the CBS interviewer after he and Michigan’s Bo Schembechler exchanged kind words at midfield. Before shaking hands with Fry, Schembechler looked up Iowa running back Ronnie Harmon and congratulated him. Harmon put an affectionate arm around the Wolverine coach.
Then the landslide of Iowa fans onto the field became an avalanche. A little later some of the more rambunctious ones succeeded in tearing down the north goal posts, through which the last two of Houghtlin’s four successful field goals had passed.
Michigan’s vaunted defense, which still has given up only one touchdown in six games and led the nation by allowing its first five foes an average of 4.2 points a game, did succeed in holding Chuck Long without a touchdown pass.
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But Long feathered his nest with the Heisman Trophy voters by completing 26 of 39 passes for 297 yards with one interception. Bill Happel caught nine of them for the second time this season.
“Long is a magnificent quarterback,” said Schembechler after recovering from his near-apoplexy demonstrations on the sideline. “If it were just Long or just Harmon, we could handle either of them. But with both in there, it’s just about impossible.”
Harmon dented Michigan’s reputation of being so tough against the run by gaining 120 yards in 32 darts, dashes and divergent dipsy-dos. He also hauled in six of Long’s passes for 72 yards.
Scott Helverson came up with five grabs for 60 yards. Most of the crowd — and undoubtedly many of the millions watching on CBS’ nearly nationwide TV audience — thought another of Helverson’s remarkable catches should have counted, that one for a touchdown. It might have made the Hawkeyes’ victory easier, and not so dramatic.
Get this: Iowa ran 84 rushing and passing plays to Michigan’s 41. The Hawkeyes won the yardage battle, 422-182. And they had ball possession 38 minutes and 5 seconds to Michigan’s 21:55.
After a scoreless first quarter, Iowa was on the march with its first possession in the second period. With Long launching and Harmon harpooning, the Hawks penetrated to the Michigan 18. On third down, Long scrambled away from Michigan’s tacklers and hurled the ball deep into the end zone.
Helverson leaped above Michigan’s highly regarded defenders, caught the ball and fell to the soaking artificial surface. An official finally ruled the catch no good, indicating he thought Helverson had landed on the line before touching either foot in-bounds.
“I don’t think I had one foot in-bounds,” Helverson said later. “I was sure I had my whole body in-bounds.”
CBS-TV instant replays made the official ruling look wrong, but it stood. So Houghtlin was summoned to kick a 35-yard field goal and Iowa was on the board first, 3-0.
The Hawkeyes tried a new kickoff man, Mike Kennon, junior from Stanton, Iowa, who had never appeared in a college game before. Kennon’s kickoff was taken by Michigan’s Tom Wilcher on the 8-yard line and returned 60 yards.
The Wolverines proceeded to score the game’s only TD, but it also was marred by controversy. Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh several times asked for and received permission from Referee Jerry Hendrickson to walk away from his center and halt the 25-second count because of “excessive crowd noise.”
The horde of Iowa fans hooted derisively at these rulings, thinking the noise did not prevent Harbaugh’s teammates from hearing his snap count.
“It was obvious their quarterback could hear,” said Fry. “He was standing there and reading our goal-line defense. He was audibilizing at the line. There was nothing the referee could do about it because of that new rule they passed.”
On third-and-goal from Iowa’s 5, Harbaugh scrambled away from pursuit and shoveled a little pass to his fullback, Gerald White, who scored. Mike Gillette, one of Michigan’s two barefoot kickers, booted the point, 7-3.
That score held up until the final play of the half. Again Iowa probed deep into Michigan territory but came up dry on touchdowns. So Houghtlin kicked a 27-yard field goal.
The third quarter also was scoreless, but Iowa inched ahead, 9-7, with 14:20 to play on Houghtlin’s third three-pointer. This was a 36-yarder and gave him 10 in a row over five games.
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Again Iowa’s kickoff game proved shaky, as White returned Kennon’s short boot 17 yards to his 37. With Bob Perryman running for 17 yards and Jamie Morris for 24, the Wolves reached the Iowa 23.
On fourth down, Gillette kicked a 40-yard field goal to put Michigan on top, 10-9, the clock showing 10:55 to go.
The Hawkeyes surged north in much the same manner they exhibited in the 35-31 victory over Michigan State two weeks earlier. With Harmon and Long almost alternating on their specialties, they reached the Michigan 23.
Long was sacked for a loss of 10 by Ivan Hicks’ blitz, but he gained 6 back on the next play. On fourth down, Houghtlin was summoned again, but this time his 44-yard try was short, with 7 1/2 minutes to play.
Now it was the Hawkeye defense’s turn to bare its teeth, Richard Pryor and Hap Peterson tackled Morris and Perryman, respectively, for 4-yard gains. On third-and-2, All-American Larry Station knifed through and nailed Morris for a 2-yard loss. It was his ninth tackle of the day. Fellow linebacker George Davis was credited with 10.
Happel fielded Monte Robbins’ 45-yard punt with a fair catch on the Iowa 22, and the tense offense began again with 5:27 to play.
Same script: Long and Harmon, Harmon and Long. Twice Long converted on third down by passing to Mike Flagg. Another hairy third-down situation arose at the Michigan 22, but David Hudson solved it neatly with a 6-yard run.
All eyes were on the clock as Harmon slashed through for 4 yards to the Michigan 12. Fry instructed the Hawkeyes to call their final timeout, and they did it with two seconds showing, almost causing heart failure for thousands.
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Houghtlin went onto the field to set up his tee, but Fry called him over to the sideline in an attempt to quiet his nerves. When the teams lined up again, Michigan did the expected and called another timeout.
“Yes, I was nervous,” Houghtlin admitted later. “However, as soon as I hit it, I knew it was good ... I had the feeling we would score a touchdown on our final drive, but after the clock got down to the final minute I knew it was going to come around to my kick attempt.”
The Hawkeyes, 6-0 and tied with Minnesota (each with 3-0) for the Big Ten lead, hit the road for the next two: surprising Northwestern Saturday and Ohio State Nov. 2.