IOWA CITY — The elevator doors slid open, and an alcohol-scented roar of elation slipped in.
What had been a car full of quiet reporters was suddenly permeated by a smattering of fans in black and gold, including a wide-eyed, grinning child who was so caught up in the jubilee that he tried to jump on the elevator without his family. (They quickly pulled him back out.)
That same sea of black and gold had also taken over the stairwell, the concourse and the field itself, with chants of “LET’S GO HAWKS” shaking the core of Kinnick Stadium. The mob eventually scattered, and the chants faded into loud, celebratory choruses of Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup” in the stadium’s surrounding parking lots some 30 minutes later.
They say crazy things can happen at Kinnick, and the No. 3 Michigan football team learned it the hard way Saturday night.
Of course, the Wolverines’ coach, Jim Harbaugh, already knew it. Thirty-one years ago, he was the quarterback of a No. 2 Michigan team that rolled into Iowa City to face No. 1 Iowa, with the winner taking the driver’s seat for a Rose Bowl bid.
The Wolverines lost that game, 12-10, on a last-second 29-yard field goal. The fans stormed the field in seconds and ended up dismantling one of the goal posts. Harbaugh said then, “It felt like someone reached in and pulled everything out.”
Harbaugh was on the sideline Saturday when history repeated itself. This time, it was a 33-yard field goal from Keith Duncan as the clock stuck zero — a kick that snapped No. 3 Michigan’s undefeated season and, yet again, brought the Hawkeye faithful over the barricades and onto the field, this time to celebrate a 14-13 victory.
But this wasn’t an undefeated Iowa team with Rose Bowl aspirations — the Hawkeyes were 5-4 entering the game, and punter Ron Coluzzi might have been their most impactful player on the field Saturday.
This wasn’t a hard-fought battle of two dominant teams where the Wolverines came up just short at the end.
It was a lesson of what can happen for Michigan when everything goes wrong.
Earlier this season, the Wolverines knocked off Wisconsin in Ann Arbor because of redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight’s ability to throw a timely deep ball. His fourth-quarter 46-yard touchdown pass to fifth-year senior receiver Amara Darboh ended up being the difference in a 14-7 win.
But Saturday, Speight couldn’t hit any long passes — he underthrew a few to Darboh that could have been intercepted, and he airmailed Darboh near the end zone in the fourth quarter on a drive where Michigan had to settle for a field goal. Even a pass that he put on fifth-year senior receiver Jehu Chesson’s hands was stripped away for an Iowa interception. It just wasn’t Speight’s night, and he finished with a season-low 4.0 yards per attempt.
“Just an off night, I guess,” he said. “(The passing game) just wasn’t really clicking, and that starts with me.”
The Wolverines have been a well-disciplined team all year long, averaging 4.7 penalties a game but saving most of them for inconsequential moments.
Saturday, they still only had five penalties, but all had a tangible effect on the game. In the first quarter, freshman linebacker and special teams standout Devin Bush get ejected for targeting the punter (despite the fact that said punter had already stumbled and somersaulted without even being touched). Later in the first, Michigan ran into the same punter on two consecutive fourth-down plays to give Iowa a first down. In the second, redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Bryan Mone’s unnecessary roughness penalty set up the Hawkeyes’ lone touchdown of the game. And finally — worst of all — redshirt junior linebacker Mike McCray committed a face-mask penalty at midfield to put Iowa on the brink of field goal range on the game’s final drive.
All season, the Wolverines have managed to keep their offense on the field by picking up key third-downs and giving the defense time to rest.
Against the Hawkeyes, they scored only one touchdown, had five three-and-outs, took a safety and lost the time-of-possession battle by five minutes. Still, Michigan’s defense largely held its own — the Wolverines held Iowa to 4-for-16 on third down, and senior cornerback Channing Stribling nearly saved the game with an interception.
And then Michigan’s offense thanked him by promptly going three-and-out again.
The Wolverines can’t even blame the kicking game anymore — fifth-year senior Kenny Allen proved he’s well past his early-season struggles by making both of his field goals, including a career-long 51-yarder that would have stood as the game-winner until Iowa answered it at the end.
In the end, most of Michigan’s strengths were neutralized, and the hostile environment just got wilder.
“Guys weren’t really hearing play calls and stuff, because (the fans) were going nuts,” Speight said. “Any time you come to Iowa — I mean, Coach told us before the game and after the game about when he came into Iowa and they lost on a last-second field goal. It happens. It’s football.”
Harbaugh’s second crazy night at Kinnick truly was the perfect storm of ineptitude from Michigan — the kind of ineptitude that the Wolverines can’t afford to show against Indiana next week, nor in Columbus in two weeks, and certainly not in the postseason.
Michigan had already seen what can happen when everything is firing on all cylinders, and now it’s seen what can happen when nothing is. The Wolverines are lucky to have most of their goals still alive, but this loss makes some of those goals seem like a long shot.
The dream of perfection died Saturday — it was swallowed up by the black-and-gold mass that flooded every inch of Kinnick Stadium.
Now, Michigan has to make sure its season doesn’t die there, too.