INDIANAPOLIS — Nobody took Jim Harbaugh and Aidan Hutchinson seriously back in July. Yet there they were, sitting behind a podium at Lucas Oil Stadium during Big Ten Media Days, insisting the Michigan football team was ready to take the next step.
Asked about beating Ohio State and reaching the Big Ten Championship Game, Harbaugh said the Wolverines would “get there or die trying.” Hutchinson, too, affirmed his willingness to die for it. Given Michigan’s dismal 2-4 season in 2020, it was easy to scoff at claims of culture change and national contention.
But on Saturday night, their July words came to life.
The second-ranked Wolverines (12-1 overall, 9-1 Big Ten) defeated No. 13 Iowa (10-3, 7-3), 42-3, capturing the program’s first Big Ten title since 2004. When the clock ticked down to double-zeros, maize and blue confetti rained down on the same field where everyone wrote off Harbaugh and Hutchinson in July.
“We defied all expectations,” Hutchinson said. “Nobody thought we could do this. Nobody thought we could ever do this, especially not this season. And, man, we did it. And we did it in a very dominant fashion.”
Standing outside the postgame locker room, shouts of “6-6” and “two percent” reverberated through the tunnel — references to the Wolverines’ projected 6-6 record and the 2% chance ESPN’s preseason algorithm gave Michigan to win the Big Ten East. ESPN’s calculations also estimated the Wolverines had a 0.7% chance to win the Big Ten Championship and a 0.0% chance to make the College Football Playoff.
“There’s always that little external motivation,” sixth-year offensive lineman Andrew Vastardis said. “… Sometimes, just some of the stuff that’s out there, you just take it and ride with it and (add) fuel to the fire. So that’s where that was from.”
That fuel was apparent on Saturday night. From an identity standpoint, Michigan and the Hawkeyes appeared to be mirror images entering this week. Both programs pride themselves on physical, run-first football.
When they stepped foot on the field, however, it quickly became apparent that wasn’t the case.
Iowa hadn’t allowed a run of 30-plus yards all season, but it didn’t take long for Blake Corum to change that. The sophomore running back took an inside handoff 67 yards for a touchdown on the Wolverines’ second possession.
On their next offensive play from scrimmage, junior quarterback Cade McNamara threw a lateral to running back Donovan Edwards in the flat. But instead of turning the corner, the freshman reared off his back foot and threw a deep ball to junior receiver Roman Wilson, who ran streaking behind the defense all alone. The double-pass went for a 75-yard touchdown, giving Michigan a quick two-score lead.
“(That play) has been ready for prime time about seven weeks,” Harbaugh said. “… We had it planned early. As soon as we got into the left hash after the fourth play, we were going to run that. And (Edwards) has never missed on that throw. Sometimes he throws it off his left, his right foot. He’s always on the move running when he throws it. And every time, it’s a dime.”
On the other side of the ball, that was more than the Wolverines needed.
After allowing a field goal late in the first quarter, Michigan’s defense gave up just 160 more yards. The Wolverines held Iowa to a 5-for-18 mark on third down and didn’t surrender a single point following the first frame. Hutchinson recorded four tackles, a sack and two quarterback hurries en route to Big Ten Championship Game MVP honors.
He’s the first defensive player to ever win the award, but his teammates believe he belongs in the conversation for a bigger one.
“It’s pretty self-explanatory. He deserves to be the Heisman Trophy winner,” Vastardis said. “He showed out every week, been a game-changer.”
Senior running back Hassan Haskins padded the Wolverines’ lead with a pair of second-half rushing touchdowns, becoming the first player in program history to tally 20 in a single-season. Michigan’s 42 points were the most the Hawkeyes’ vaunted defense had allowed since the 2015 Rose Bowl, sealing their worst postseason losing margin in program history.
Saturday’s victory cements the Wolverines’ first-ever College Football Playoff berth, helping Harbaugh restore his alma mater’s place in the upper echelon of college football. Prior to 2021, Michigan’s seventh-year coach had yet to beat Ohio State, claim a conference title or lead his team to the College Football Playoff. The fact that he checked all three of those boxes during the past week solidifies this season as an inflection point for the program.
Most players on the Wolverines’ roster hadn’t even started elementary school the last time Michigan won a Big Ten title. Now, that drought is over. And it ended in the very stadium where nobody thought it was possible in July.
That is, except for Harbaugh, Hutchinson and the rest of the Wolverines.