The big question for Iowa football ahead of this Big Ten Championship Game: having smoke-and-mirrored their way to 10 wins during the regular season, could they do so again against #2 Michigan, the best team they'd faced all season?
The answer: an emphatic "no."
It turns out that having a completely impotent offense is a pretty big impediment to your ability to win -- or even compete -- in big games. And Iowa's offense was truly impotent in this game, mustering a grand total of... three points. The last time the Iowa offense mustered so few points was... also against a Jim Harbaugh-led Michigan team, when the Wolverines edged Iowa 10-3 back in 2019. That was about the only similarity between that game and this one, though.
This game ended up being a greatest hits for the foibles of the Iowa offense. Red zone failures? Oh god yes. Iowa's red zone offense has been frustrating all season, but it reached an absolute nadir in this game. Iowa made three trips inside the Michigan 15-yard line in this game... and came away with a grand total of three points. Their first of those trips was arguably their most promising, if only because that was the only trip where they actually looked like they might score a touchdown. Brian Ferentz dug deep into the forbidden zones of the Iowa play book to find a halfback pass to the fullback that would have worked -- Monte Pottebaum was wide open on the edge of the end zone -- if the fullback was not, well, a fullback. The pass fell incomplete and a few plays later, Iowa settled for a field goal attempt... which Caleb Shudak shockingly pushed wide right. That was the first sign that it probably wasn't going to be Iowa's night. It was far from the last.
On the next trip inside the Michigan 15-yard line, Iowa didn't come particularly close to scoring. After getting first-and-goal from the Michigan 9-yard line, Iowa called two uninspiring runs up the middle (covering five yards) and a pass that was vaguely in the vicinity of Keagan Johnson, but not actually catchable. Shudak did at least drill the 22-yard field goal that time.
The third trip came in the third quarter, with Iowa trailing 21-3 and in dire need of points to prevent the game from getting out of hand. (Or, well, further out of hand.) Alex Padilla had taken over at QB at this point and though he moved Iowa back into the red zone, he was equally incapable of leading them to the forbidden territory known as the end zone. Once again, on first down from the Michigan 15, Iowa ran two inside run plays for middling yardage, then threw a one-yard completion on third-and-four. (No team in America has more one- and two-yard routes in their playbook than Iowa, I am sure of this.) Rather than kick a field goal to cut the deficit from 21-3 to 21-6, Kirk Ferentz made the correct decision to go for it on fourth down. But the less said about that fourth down play, the better. I still have no idea how it was supposed to work.
The red zone failures were a nice change of pace from the performance of the Iowa offense the rest of the game, though, which was just standard-issue ineffective. This was most grating in the second quarter when the defense had Michigan's offense in a vise grip and there was a glimmer of an opportunity for Iowa to make the game competitive. Iowa was trying to play the field position game in the quarter, and the defense and special teams did their part -- the defense forced consecutive three-and-outs by Michigan Tory Taylor pinned the Wolverines inside their own 10-yard line on three consecutive punts -- but the offense was wholly incapable of doing anything with the field position bestowed upon them by their teammates. Iowa started back-to-back drives near midfield and (briefly) moved into Michigan territory before, yet again, stalling out. A quarter's worth of good work amounted to nothing because the offense could not do anything sustain drives to threaten to score points. The second half wasn't really any better, minus the one drive in which Padilla led Iowa to the Michigan 15.
Iowa had 121 yards on 23 plays in the first quarter. In the remaining three quarters, they managed a grand total of 158 yards on 42 plays, a pathetic 3.3 yards per play average. Iowa actually had a few nice drives in the first quarter -- Spencer Petras hit a few decent pass plays (mostly to the tight ends, Sam LaPorta and Luke Lachey) and were able to actually sustain drives well enough to get into the red zone (where, as previously noted, everything went to hell), but once those dried up, the offense had absolutely nothing.
Neither Spencer Petras nor Alex Padilla were particularly effective at QB. Petras had some accuracy issues and overthrew a handful of receivers, while Padilla was unable to hit any chunk plays (he finished 10/15 for 38 yards). The receivers seemed to struggle to get separation from defenders apart from a handful of plays and the running game had flashes but was unable to consistently gain yards, as has been the case all season long. The offensive line struggled to open holes in the running game and while they only gave up one sack officially, they gave up a lot of pressure -- Michigan was credited with nine QB hurries and, frankly, that figure seems low.
But, as ever, the real fault of the Iowa offense is not the players, who are simply trying to execute a flawed and ineffective playbook for an archaic system. Brian Ferentz was unable to make any in-game adjustments that were effective. The red zone play calling was a sick joke. The overall gameplan was... well, we think there was a gameplan. Probably. Maybe. It's hard to say what it might have been. But this is the offense the Ferent brain trust wants, so this is the offense we get.
Giving up 42 points would suggest that the Iowa defense had a terrible game, but the reality was a bit more mixed. In the first quarter they made some mistakes that were deeply uncharacteristic of a Phil Parker-led defense, giving up their biggest run play of the season (a 67-yard touchdown) and their biggest pass play of the season (a 75-yard touchdown) on consecutive plays. Giving up big plays is a cardinal sin for the Iowa defense and one thing that they're usually excellent at preventing. They bend, but they don't break. Those were two very big, very painful break points, though. On the first play, bad angles, bad tackling, and over-pursuit (as well as a wicked cut and impressive top end speed by Michigan RB Blake Corum) led to the breakdown; on the second, Michigan showed Iowa how to actually run a halfback pass trick play to perfection.
But the Iowa defense actually played well after those big play breakdowns; they held Michigan to 53 yards on 20 plays in the second quarter and to 67 yards on 12 plays in the third quarter. That was certainly good enough to keep Iowa in the game, if the offense had been able to hold up their end of the bargain and put together scoring drives. We know what happened instead. The wheels completely fell off in the fourth quarter, as Iowa gave up 141 yards and three touchdowns on 19 plays. But by then the defense was worn down and getting forced to defend on short fields; there's only so long they could hold up before the dam broke.
Finally, let's take a look at the keys to victory we noted earlier in the day and how those turned out. (HINT: Not well.)
TURNOVERS: Technically Iowa won the turnover battle and finished with a +1 TO margin. But that was a bit of a hollow stat because they weren't able to do anything with either of the turnovers they forced (two interceptions). The first interception, by Jack Campbell, halted Michigan's momentum on another potential scoring drive, but it only gave Iowa the ball at their own 33-yard line; not exactly prime territory to set up the Iowa offense in a scoring situation. The second interception came on the last play of the first half on a hail mary attempt by Michigan. In comparison, Michigan intercepted Padilla on the Iowa 31-yard line, instantly setting Michigan up in prime field position; they scored seven plays later. Michigan also got the ball after a blocked punt, which doesn't officially count as a turnover, but has the same effect. That play, too, set Michigan up inside the Iowa 40-yard line; they scored a touchdown four plays later.
DEFENSE/SPECIAL TEAMS: Neither of these areas went Iowa's way. As noted above, Iowa did hold their own on defense for a while (albeit only after giving up two huge touchdown plays), but the defense eventually got worn down and overrun. And while the defense was able to get stops and a few three-and-outs, they were never able to create any potentially game-changing plays, such as scoring a touchdown or setting Iowa's offense up with stellar field position. Is that an unfair burden to put on the defense? Yes, probably. But it's also the reality for this team. Iowa also wasn't able to get any big plays in the special teams side of things. Charlie Jones was unable to break off any big returns and even the kicking game was a very mixed bag -- Tory Taylor had several good punts, but also had one blocked, while Caleb Shudak missed a field goal. To win this game Iowa needed greatness from their defense and special teams and that isn't what they got.
PROTECT PETRAS: Kind of, but not really. Officially, Iowa only gave up one sack of Petras (or Padilla), but Michigan was still able to get a pretty healthy amount of pressure on Iowa's quarterbacks and force some bad or hurried passes. The lack of sacks did mean that Iowa didn't have to face too many third-and-20 situation, but that's really the only (very small) silver lining.
RUN THE DANG BALL, BRIAN: Iowa tried, but there was just no consistency in the running game. Iowa ran for 114 yards (with sack yardage removed) on 32 attempts, a 3.6 yards per carry average. There were a few decent runs from Tyler Goodson and Gavin Williams, but there were also a lot of negative yardage plays or 1-2 yard runs that went nowhere. That's been a recurring theme for the running game all season long, though.
FIELD GOALS: Shudak went 1/2 on field goals in this game, which was disappointing and a little bit costly (at least early on, when having those points might have made a difference in how the game played out). But ultimately the bigger problem for Iowa was not enough scoring opportunities. Getting three points out of three red zone trips is very bad; only making three red zone trips in an entire game is also very, very bad.
- BIG PLAYS: Finally, this one went against Iowa hard. They weren't able to generate any huge plays on offense, while Michigan sucker-punched them not once, but twice in the first quarter with big plays. That put Iowa in an early hole and forced them to play catch-up (not a good position for Iowa) and let Michigan play from ahead (a very good position for Michigan).
A lot of things needed to go right for Iowa to have a real chance to upset Michigan in this game. Pretty much none of them did. When that happens, well, a loss is pretty much a foregone conclusion and there's the potential for things to get ugly -- and "ugly" is exactly what we got.