IOWA CITY — Head down, play sheet still tucked into his pants, Greg Mattison walked up the long slope of the Southeast tunnel at Kinnick Stadium. He walked by two stone-faced Michigan equipment managers shortly after watching the Wolverines’ offense fail to score a touchdown with four chances from the three-yard line.
There were no overtime blitzes to call, no opportunity for his defense to give Michigan’s offense another chance. Mattison was one of the reasons the Wolverines were here, sitting at 7-1 before playing the Hawkeyes.
He was one of the first pieces in Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s reign of doing no wrong. Hoke snagged an NFL defensive coordinator. Recruits started running to Ann Arbor.
In a game where the Michigan defense forced just three 3-and-outs, it made sense that one of them came with just under four minutes left when Iowa could have put the game away. It made sense that despite not playing well for three quarters, the Wolverines were going to march down the field on the final drive and tie the game. It was a foregone conclusion.
“We thought for sure we were going to go into overtime,” said redshirt junior safety Jordan Kovacs. “But it didn’t work out like that.”
Except this time, Jeremy Gallon wasn’t inexplicably wide open on a wheel route. The Wolverines had two touchdown plays go to review on that final drive: Vincent Smith’s he’s-down-but-he’s-not-really-down play and Junior Hemingway’s catch that wasn’t a catch. Neither was called in Michigan’s favor.
The referees could have called pass interference on the final play of the game, when it appeared Hawkeye cornerback B.J. Lowery wrapped up redshirt junior Roy Roundtree before the ball arrived. They didn’t. The officials also could have called pass interference on the deep pass to Roundtree in the second quarter, when it was still an eight point game. One threw the flag, then picked it up.
“There are always six to eight plays in a game that are really going to define when you’re playing a good football team, when you’re playing a team on the road,” Hoke said.
Those past plays were four. Whether they were the right calls isn’t important when looking at the fact that Michigan didn’t get the breaks.
As for play No. 5, how about Robinson’s interception at the end of the half, when Iowa’s Micah Hyde got an arm on the ball to tip it into his teammate’s waiting hands?
And No. 6? Robinson’s fumble. He did the hard part in avoiding a sack. Then he didn’t just drop the ball, he swung his leg and accidentally kicked right to the Hawkeye defensive lineman.
Back in the tunnel, about 20 feet ahead of Mattison was Hoke, surrounded by a gang of police officers. It may have been the first time he actually needed them this season. That Midas touch is gone.
On the field, Michigan has few long-term injuries. For all the bad interceptions junior quarterback Denard Robinson had thrown, he won games. Then there is the Notre Dame game, which still doesn’t make sense.
It hasn’t been magic because that implies some form of deception. Michigan came into Saturday at 7-1 because nearly everything has just sort of worked out in its favor.
For the first time all season Hoke seemed like a regular coach who had to go through regular channels, not some sort of fairy-tale creature who bleeds toughness and creates winning with his mind.
It’s obvious now that Michigan’s season isn’t going to be a fairy tale either. Its outside shot at the Big Ten Title game likely ended four days into November.
The Wolverines will have to finish the season without relying on ridiculous turnovers and every questionable call going their way. Even when they got beat by Michigan State, Michigan had its good fortune, recovering two fumbles that were dropped by the Spartan player and not forced.
Now, they’ll simply have to be better than the opposing team. And through all the non-catches, non-pass interference calls and tweets from Junior Hemingway about how he caught that ball, did the Wolverines actually play better than Iowa?
No. Why does it feel like Michigan should’ve won?
— Florek predicted 8-4 at the beginning of the season. He feels pretty good about that prediction. Send him hate mail at email@example.com. You can also yell at him on twitter: @michaelflorek