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Great Moments in Iowa-Michigan History, #3: Iowa 30, Michigan 27 (2003)

EDIT: Praise be to the BTN!  According to their schedule, this game is on Friday from 5-7pm CST and Saturday from 5-7am CST.

Iowa-Michigan week is upon us, and in celebration we're hopping in the way-back machine to check out some of Iowa's most glorious moments in their long history with the Wolverines.

It's Michigan-centric, but still pretty comprehensive.

Of all the games profiled in this series, this is the one I recall most vividly.  The details of a lot of the games I attended during my eight years in Iowa City have blurred together, but not this one.  In 2003, Iowa was coming off its magical 2002 campaign and no one was quite sure what to expect out of the Hawks.  Four-fifths of the impregnable offensive line were gone (most to the NFL), as was our Mackey Award-winning tight end (Dallas Clark), our Heisman runner-up quarterback (Brad Banks), one of our top two receivers (CJ Jones), and some key defensive players (Fred Barr, Colin Cole).  On the other hand, the best offensive lineman (Robert Gallery) was still there and he was better than ever, and we had our top two running backs back (Fred Russell and Jermelle Lewis), our best receiver (Maurice Brown), our defensive leader (Bob Sanders), plus increased roles for a few budding stars on the defense (Chad Greenway, Abdul Hodge, Matt Roth, Jonathan Babineaux).

The season started well, with a 21-3 smothering of Ben Roethlisberger's excellent Miami (OH) team, a routine beatdown of a MACrifice (56-7 over Buffalo), a cathartic 40-21 win over Iowa State, and a 21-2 crushing of Arizona State.  But signs of trouble were emerging: Lewis missed the first part of the season with an injury (something which would become a sad recurring theme for the remainder of his Iowa career), and our top two receivers at the beginning of the season (Brown and Ed Hinkel) went down with injury.  That bad mojo caught up to Iowa in the Michigan State game and after spotting the Spartans an early 14-0 lead, they never caught up.  So heading into the Michigan game, confidence was not exactly at an all-time high.  Michigan (as usual) had a very good team and was a top contender to win the Big Ten -- they'd also spent the entire week in the lead-up to the game talking about how badly they wanted revenge for the 34-9 Big House beatdown Iowa had delivered the year prior.  Meanwhile, the Iowa defense was looking stiff, but the offense was a mess: the top two receivers were out, the tight end spot was manned by the Erik Jensen/Tony Jackson combo, the running back depth chart was Fred Russell and, er, your guess is as good as mine (Marcus Schnoor?), and the inconsistent Nathan Chandler was still quarterback.  So, naturally, they won one of Iowa's greatest games of the Aughts.

Mind you, it didn't start off as much of a great game.  Iowa went three and out on its first two possessions, while John Navarre, Chris Perry, Braylon Edwards, and Jason Avant picked the Iowa defense apart for an early 14-0 lead. That took the air out of what had been one of the most electric Kinnick crowds I'd ever experienced -- but it didn't last long, because after "Razor" Ramon Ochoa made the first of his three big plays in the game (a 31-yard kickoff return) and Chandler led Iowa right down the field and punched in a touchdown himself to cut the lead in half.  From then on, the electricity in the air never seemed to dissipate and both teams traded scores.  One of the most crucial plays in the game came late in the first half, when Ochoa made the second of his three big plays (a 43-yard punt return) and set up Iowa for a much-needed touchdown to cut the Michigan lead to 20-17 at halftime.

The defenses settled in after an action-packed first half, even when the opposing offenses or special teams put them in bad spots.  Iowa made it into Michigan territory three times in the third quarter and even started two drives inside the Michigan 30... and all they had to show for it was a pair of Nate Keading field goals.  That was enough to give Iowa a 23-20 lead heading into the third quarter, but no Iowa fan felt remotely confident with that lead, not with Navarre, Edwards, Avant, and Breaston lurking on the other sideline.  Iowa and Michigan traded punts, and then Iowa put together the drive that sealed the game: 10 plays, 79 yards, almost five minutes, and the third of Ochoa's three big plays in the game, a beautiful 31-yard touchdown catch.  I don't know if I remember any other in-game moment at Kinnick that was as loud as that during my eight years there.  Michigan grabbed a quick touchdown to pull within three, but their final shot went for naught when they turned it over on downs.  

The most remarkable thing about that game was the fact that it was an Iowa team -- or at least an Iowa offense -- comprised of Island of Misfit Toys-level football players beating a team full of blue-chippers and future NFL stalwarts.  Granted, Iowa's almost always at a talent disadvantage compared to Michigan, but that 2003 offense -- especially in the Michigan game -- was even more bargain-bin than usual.  The 2002 Iowa offense may have been outclassed when it came to star rankings or average draft positions, but it doesn't take a genius to see that they had some incredible players; they may not have all translated to the NFL level, but they were high-level performers in college.  You'd be hard-pressed to say that about many of the stars of the 2003 Michigan game.  

Nathan Chandler was a slow leviathan of a quarterback with an inconsistent deep ball and so-so accuracy.  Ramon Ochoa was sneaky-fast, but he was undersized and his hands weren't always consistent.  Calvin Davis was blessed with plenty of straight-line speed, but he often struggled to translate that into football skill.  Erik Jensen and Tony Jackson were capable blockers and (Jensen at least) had solid hands, but they weren't too fast.  And yet in that 2003 game against Michigan they all came through with incredibly clutch performances.  Davis had his best day as a Hawk, catching seven passes for 60 yards and a score.  Jensen had 60 yards on three catches.  Ochoa had 169 total yards and was instrumental in 17 of Iowa's 30 points.  And Chandler... well, Chandler had a quintessential Chandler game for that year: 17/34, 195 yards, 2/1 TD/INT, and a rushing touchdown.  It was rarely pretty (although that 31-yard rainbow to Ochoa was certainly pretty damn spectacular), but at the end of the day it was surprisingly effective.

Unlike the previous two entries in this series, Iowa's season didn't end with a claim to the Big Ten championship or a trip to the Rose Bowl.  Road losses to OUR MOST HATED RIVAL and (yet again) Ohio State put the kibosh on those dreams and Iowa had to settle for an Outback Bowl trip and a game with Florida.  The good news is that game went very well indeed and 2003, despite an offense full of misfit toys, went down as a pretty fine season.

(Ed. Note: Youtube may be a bit deficient when it comes to highlights of this game, but Scothawk does have a pretty damn fine video recap for your perusal.)

NEXT: One more amazing trip to the Big House.