IOWA CITY — In the minutes after their College Football Playoff dreams were suddenly called into question, Chris Wormley and Jake Butt sat in a mostly empty media room.
Outside the room was chaos — both on the field, and in the bowels of Kinnick Stadium, where wild celebration was audible through the walls. The Michigan football team had just fallen, 14-13, on a last-second field goal by Iowa. Hawkeye fans stormed the field, punctuating a devastating loss. It was the first time all season the third-ranked Wolverines had felt the sting of defeat, and soon, they would begin regrouping.
But before that, before the postgame press conference even started, Butt pulled back and whispered something to Wormley. It’s anyone’s guess what he said. But there’s a good chance that, over the next two weeks, we’ll see the result.
When the Wolverines suffered their only other last-second loss of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure against Michigan State last year, Harbaugh spoke of putting steel in the Wolverines’ spines. And while the circumstances of that game were markedly different, the same philosophy applies going forward. The Wolverines have to find a way to rebound and find their top form for the season’s final two games.
“We missed countless opportunities,” Butt said. “I really think it’s on us more than it is on (Iowa). I don’t want to discredit what they did, but we’ve gotta look at ourselves in the mirror. There were some huge plays, some key plays in key situations that if we make, that we’re not even in this position. But it’s not something we’re gonna hang our heads about, it’s something we’re gonna learn from and improve, and I think we’re gonna turn this into something that will make us stronger down the stretch.”
The strange thing about Saturday’s loss is that it doesn’t change the way Michigan has to operate going forward. With a game against Ohio State remaining, and because they hold the tiebreaker against Penn State, the Wolverines control their own destiny. Win out, and they’re in the Big Ten title game with a direct path to the College Football Playoff. Lose, and they almost certainly won’t be.
That means, for as low as Michigan must have felt after the game, it has to pick itself up with the knowledge it can’t afford any more slip-ups. Ultimately, a loss to Ohio State would have likely kept the Wolverines out of Indianapolis anyway. Saturday’s loss just took away the cushion.
“We never really, before tonight, we didn’t really look at it as, ‘OK, we have some margin of error,’ ” said redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight. “It happened, so now we say, ‘OK, everything is fine, we’re going to move on and if we win out we’ll be OK.’ But that was never, ‘OK, we have one slip up, and if we do that it’s all right.’ That was never our mindset. So it doesn’t add any fuel to the fire.”
There are certainly areas Michigan will have to improve going forward. Speight was 11-for-26 with 103 yards and an interception. The Wolverines mustered just 98 yards rushing. They committed untimely penalties that proved costly in the end.
Michigan mustered just 201 total yards against the Hawkeyes, a major reason why Iowa was able to win despite totaling just 230 yards of its own. That total is lower than the Wolverines have allowed on average this year, but in a wild game at rowdy Kinnick Stadium, it was enough.
But it wasn’t enough to dash Michigan’s hopes entirely. Even after Keith Duncan’s 33-yard field goal as time expired handed the Wolverines their most devastating moment of the season, those who spoke to media remained resolute on the task ahead.
After the game, nearly every player available was asked whether the team felt its biggest goals were ahead of it. Unanimously, and obviously, the answer was “yes.” Now, it’s up to them to achieve it.
“Jourdan (Lewis) and coach Harbaugh and a lot of the older guys, they said, ‘Keep your head up, there’s not anything we can do about it now,’ ” said senior safety Dymonte Thomas. “Only thing we can do is win out.”