The Takeaway: Michigan

Matthew Holst

Sure, Iowa just rallied to beat Michigan, 24-21. But how much do we really know? What was really important about beating the Wolverines? What does it all mean, Basil? The Takeaway has the answer.

Handled. It's not often that you think things like, "Boy, if Iowa could just get its act together, it should be whipping Michigan." There were decades straight when that was not a thing you could think. And sure, this is not a great Michigan team, no doubt about it. But this isn't exactly a great Iowa team either, y'know? And still, even with a 14-point deficit at the half, it felt like Iowa wasn't that far from putting it all together.

Now, the last few years of football have rightly conditioned Iowa fans not to expect that to translate into wins. Sometimes it's the team not being put in good enough position to win, sometimes it's an inability to execute at the skill positions, sometimes it's just plain bad luck. It happens. And it looked like it was happening again on Saturday.

But then after the half, Iowa handled its business—and handled Michigan.

Ross wrote plenty about the statistical whipping Iowa put on Michigan. More generally, though, it's simple: there were no gimmicks, no flukes about the way Iowa took care of things in the second half. The Tevaun Smith catch on the touchdown was an accomplishment, no doubt about it, but it's not as if the ball deflected off a Michigan player's helmet first. He had the opportunity to make a play and he did it. On the Devin Gardner fumble that slammed the door shut on Michigan—the only turnover Iowa forced all game—it took a heads-up play by Anthony Hitchens to strip the ball and fall right on it; it's not as if Gardner just dropped the ball out of nowhere.

And obviously Iowa paid attention to Michigan's previous losses, because the formula for beating Michigan—pressure Devin Gardner to death, over and over and over and over—was followed with a Walter White-like religiosity, especially in the second half. Iowa's defense smelled blood, and it attacked. That's not a gameplan we would expect Norm Parker to be able to execute successfully, by the way.

That all said, the dearth of errors was unusual, to the point that factoring in the competition, that second half was probably the second-best half of football Iowa played all year, behind the first half of the Ohio State game. There is a reason this team is 7-4, after all, and it's not just the competition. But! We got to see Iowa do what it needed to do for the win, and the Hawkeyes got an extremely satisfying W for it.

You can't say Iowa has a better football program than Michigan's. Cannot, cannot, cannot. Not by any reasonable metric is that true. Nonetheless, you could absolutely say coming into the game that Iowa had a better football team than Michigan in this 2013 season, and the Hawkeyes proved it with that win. They had trouble, obviously, but at the end of the day they handled it.

There's one game left in the regular season. Iowa's an underdog, but not by much—just a field goal, as of late Sunday night. That's basically all home-field advantage, and even then it doesn't mean a whole lot, as home teams favored by 3 points have only won 55 percent of the time since 2003.

So if that virtual coin flip goes in Iowa's favor, you could make a pretty airtight case that Iowa is not only the second-best team in the Legends Division—a virtual impossibility at the beginning of the season—but the fourth-best team in the entire conference. That's with a pretty chasmic distance between Iowa and any of the top three (OSU, MSU, Wisconsin, none of whom have lost to anybody in the B1G but each other), obviously, but after that Iowa will have beaten everyone else it played in the conference. A 4-1 record in that loaded Legends Division? Who wouldn't have signed up for that in August?

Of course, the coin could flip the other way, and if that's the case Nebraska's all alone in second in the Legends and fourth in the B1G. And the Huskers will have earned it. But hey, Iowa's in position to take that designation out of Nebraska's hands (and make for some uncomfortable conversations between Bo Pelini and his boss about the future). We'll take it, right?

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