INDIANAPOLIS — The south end zone of Lucas Oil Stadium was where Iowa’s offense, and the Hawkeyes’ conference championship hopes, disappeared into an agonizing oblivion.
The 42-3 loss to Michigan in Saturday’s Big Ten championship game was a crushing end to Iowa’s regular season.
A 10-3 record and the Big Ten West Division title will get them a New Year’s Day bowl somewhere, but a season that started with six wins that led to a No. 2 national ranking and then four scratched-out wins to get them to this point ended with a checklist of bitter emotions.
“Definitely sad,” safety Kaevon Merriweather said. Mad. Angry. Pretty much everything, all of the above.
“I mean, with a loss like that, especially on this stage, this big of the game, the emotions are definitely strong in that area.”
“It hurts,” tight end Sam LaPorta said. “The team is ... we've been working for a moment like this since January, a lot of these guys, four, five, six years. So it hurts more than anything to work so hard and fall quite a ways short.
“Yeah, it hurts.”
The Hawkeyes had the ball for more than 31 ½ minutes, but could only come up with 279 yards of offense.
The Wolverines (12-1) had 461 yards of offense, with 211 rushing yards. Nothing they did was a surprise, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, but what was surprising was how Iowa’s defense, so good all year, was so ineffective at times.
“Just one thing leads to another sometimes,” Ferentz said. “And I've been in games like that, unfortunately, and they're not much fun. I'm not sure the score is totally representative of the two teams. It just is the way it went tonight.”
“We had to make plays,” linebacker Seth Benson said. “And they made more plays than us.”
Iowa got inside the Michigan 20-yard line on the south end of the field three times … and got three points. Three more got away with Caleb Shudak missed a field goal on the Hawkeyes’ first possession of the game, and who knows how many points got away with some questionable play-calling and execution on a drive late in the third quarter.
“We got the ball down in there a couple times,” Ferentz said. “You want to come out with a touchdown at least, if not a field goal. We just couldn't connect there. That's kind of representative of the game, I guess.”
Not even a change of quarterbacks could make a difference. Spencer Petras started and completed just 9-of-22 passes for 137 yards. But as the Hawkeyes were preparing to switch from Petras to Alex Padilla early in the third quarter, Michigan went on a 10-play, 82-yard touchdown drive to make it a 21-3 game, putting Padilla into the unenviable position of trying to move the offense against a Michigan defense that, with a big lead, was ready to tee off.
The change made no difference. Padilla led Iowa on a 14-play, 60-yard drive that took more than seven minutes in the third quarter, but it collapsed at nearly the same spot as the first drive. Padilla’s desperation pass to running back Tyler Goodson on fourth down ended up as a 7-yard loss, and all that was left was for the Wolverines to add some final notes to their resumé for the College Football Playoff committee with two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
“I thought we moved the ball really well on a portion of our drives,” said Padilla, who ws 10-of-15 passing for 38 yards and one interception. “Just couldn't execute well enough to finish.
“We knew coming in that they were a great team, had a great defense, that was going to be tough sledding all day. And that's what it was.”
It was the first time Iowa had given up 40 or more points since the 2016 Rose Bowl in the 45-16 loss to Stanford.
“To see 42, that’s really not us,” Merriweather said.
The game had the feel of Iowa’s four wins to end the regular season to get them to the West Division title and this point — the Hawkeyes, it seemed, were just hanging around waiting for the Wolverines to make a mistake. But it had the result and the cringe factor of the two midseason losses that wiped out all of the credit built by Iowa’s 6-0 start to the season.
Michigan was too good and too smart to fall into Iowa’s trap that snared so many lesser opponents. The Wolverines were efficient and mostly mistake-free — the two interceptions the Hawkeyes got weren’t converted into any sort of production.
“To make that work you've got to make them drive it and earn everything they get,” Ferentz said. “And when we have an opportunity we've got to find a way to come up with points. And field goals aren't the end of the world but at some point you need some touchdowns, too.”
Iowa was going to have to at least crack a little bit of its conservative shell on offense, and the Hawkeyes’ opening drive was crisp and crafty until Gavin Williams’ halfback pass into the end zone evaded wide-open fullback Monte Pottebaum, who was twisted into an impossible position to make a catch. Shudak, so good all season, missed a 33-yard field goal.
The Wolverines quickly turned that into points. Blake Corum’s 67-yard touchdown run on the fourth play of the ensuing possession gave Michigan a 7-0 lead.
And, when the Wolverines came up with their own trick play on their next possession — running back Donovan Edwards threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to Roman Wilson — the 14-0 lead had an even deeper pain, because Michigan had converted while the Hawkeyes had failed.
Petras, put back into a starting role, after leading Iowa to its comeback win at Nebraska last week, had his moments of success, but was still plagued by the inconsistency that has been a problem all season.
It didn’t help that he took a hard hit to the head on a run for a first down near midfield in the second quarter. The run was negated by a holding call against the Hawkeyes, and a potential targeting penalty was waved off in a replay review. Petras made a quick trip to the medical tent and then to the locker room after the possession, but he was back on the field the next time the Hawkeyes had the ball.
Ferentz said Petras’ injury had nothing to do with the play, but it was clear there was something wrong with him, especially when he had four incompletions on Iowa’s first series in the second half.
“I'm not sure what he has right now, something in his torso,” Ferentz said. “He just couldn't perform.”
Padilla immediately began warming up, but while he was getting ready Michigan went on a touchdown drive capped by Hassan Haskins’ 4-yard run. Iowa was down 21-3, a deficit that seemed deadly considering the Hawkeyes’ offensive struggles.
Ferentz said he tried to emphasize to his players all that they had accomplished this season, and that there would be a bowl game to play — the Hawkeyes will find out that destination on Sunday.
“Tonight is disappointing, and when you compete sometimes it doesn't work out the way you want, and sometimes it works like this,” he said. “And this wasn't much fun. “But it's one game out of, what, 13. And we've still got one to go.”
It was after midnight when Benson spoke at the post-game podium. It was time, he said, to move on.
“I don’t know what time it is now, it’s pretty late,” he said. “The sun’s going to come out pretty early tomorrow. You’ve got two choices — get up and sulk about it, or move on.
“Obviously it sucks right now but … yeah. Keep moving forward.”