The Michigan football team did not make many mistakes in its first nine games, beginning the makings of a special season. Then, the third-ranked Wolverines made a bunch in one ill-fated Saturday night in Iowa City, and the miscues sent Michigan to its first defeat of the year.
The Wolverines had also won the battle in the trenches in every game to that point, but Iowa matched up well with them physically, and it made Saturday’s game look much different from the rest of the season.
The year could still deliver on all of Michigan’s hopes. If the Wolverines win out — including a road upset at Ohio State on Nov. 26 and a Big Ten title on Dec. 3 — they will almost certainly make the College Football Playoff. If they don’t win those games, they almost certainly won’t. The stakes were the same when Michigan woke up Saturday morning.
Still, a lackluster performance under the lights tainted some of the dominance the Wolverines showed in the first three quarters of the season. Here are five takeaways from the loss:
1. Michigan can no longer rely on capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes.
For the first time all season, the Wolverines looked truly vulnerable. In the first nine weeks, their problems seemed to pale in comparison to other teams’. They allowed Maryland to move the ball in the first half but still won by eight touchdowns, let up on Michigan State but still prevailed by nine and managed to catch an Illinois team playing a third-string quarterback because of injuries.
Saturday, Iowa didn’t have as much for the Wolverines to exploit. The Hawkeyes’ defense played solid, gap-assignment football, limiting Michigan to a long carry of 12 yards. In the special teams, punter Ron Coluzzi gave the Wolverines almost no opportunities. Meanwhile, Iowa’s struggling offense turned the ball over only once — a fourth-quarter interception by quarterback C.J. Beathard, which Michigan gave right back on a three-and-out.
It wasn’t as if the Wolverines hadn’t been tested, and it wasn’t as if they were unable to overpower their opponent physically to win. But Michigan’s scores have been lopsided in part due to other teams’ mistakes. Saturday proved what happens when those chances dry up.
2. The passing game still needs sharpening.
In each of the previous three weeks, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh had said redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight played his best game of the season, going so far as to launch a Heisman Trophy campaign for his starter after last week’s win against Maryland. But at Iowa, Speight and the passing game couldn’t connect on many of the passes that worked in those three weeks, and the offense sputtered because of it.
Speight often found fifth-year senior wide receiver Amara Darboh in favorable one-on-one matchups at Michigan State, and against Maryland, the aerial attack found some receivers in open space downfield.
The Hawkeyes’ pass defense, though, stifled many of those opportunities, and Speight overthrew some as well. On the last series of the game, Michigan had to punt when Darboh couldn’t come up with a third-down catch, and on the drive before that, Iowa cornerback Manny Rugamba took the ball away from fifth-year senior wide receiver Jehu Chesson for an interception. If the Wolverines had connected on either of those passes, they likely would’ve won.
Speight finished 11-for-26 for 103 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in his first loss as a starter. He also appeared to injure his shoulder late in the game, so he’ll be worth watching as Michigan heads into next week.
3. Crazy things happen in road night games.
The Wolverines likely knew this already. Their prime-time road trip to Minnesota last year went down to the final play, when the defense stuffed the Golden Gophers just shy of the goal line for a Michigan win. Two weeks later, darkness had already set in when the Wolverines survived again on the road, staving off Indiana in double overtime, 48-41.
This year, though, had not brought many of those tense moments. Michigan’s first trip at Rutgers was out of hand soon after the 7 p.m. start, and the Wolverines led Michigan State in East Lansing by as many as 20 on Oct. 29. Saturday was just their second out-of-state trip of the season.
For an 8 p.m. kickoff against the No. 3 team in the country, Kinnick Stadium had its best atmosphere. The crowd, silenced by Iowa’s early 10-0 deficit, reemerged when the Hawkeyes scored a safety midway through the second quarter and never really quieted down. For the first time all season, Michigan was at a true disadvantage because of the environment, and it showed when Iowa caught some breaks down the stretch.
4. November is going to get even more interesting.
The Wolverines’ road loss Saturday came only after No. 2 Clemson and No. 4 Washington also suffered home setbacks earlier, providing a major shakeup to the College Football Playoff rankings. Ohio State will likely move back up to No. 2 this week behind Alabama, but any one of four teams could occupy the next spot. The picture only gets murkier from there.
The other losses helped Michigan in a big way — the Wolverines are still in good shape if they win out, with only one undefeated team remaining in the top 10. This weekend, chaos was essentially par for the course. But the three losses exposed flaws in each team, so more mayhem isn’t out of the question.
Louisville will make a big jump this week despite losing to Clemson earlier this season, and if more teams fall, the logjam of two-loss teams right behind them will have more opportunities. It’s going to be a fun last couple of weeks.
5. Bold Prediction: The Big Ten sends two teams to the College Football Playoff.
Though the conference’s last remaining undefeated team suffered its first loss of the season Saturday, and more carnage will follow among the Big Ten’s top teams, the early playoff rankings have been kind to the league. Michigan, No. 5 Ohio State (8-1), No. 7 Wisconsin (7-2) and even No. 10 Penn State (7-2) are still in decent shape.
If the Buckeyes win out and beat Michigan, they should end the regular season at No. 2, but at the same time, the Nittany Lions can advance to the Big Ten Championship by winning out.
It’ll be tough to drop Ohio State three spots out of the playoff race, even if the Buckeyes aren’t playing Dec. 3 in the conference title game. At the same time, Penn State or Wisconsin, which should play in Indianapolis in that scenario, can put themselves in position with a victory. Plenty more results still have to happen, but there’s a chance.