That finally changed. The second-ranked Wolverines broke through, and Saturday night’s 42-3 win over Iowa in the Big Ten championship game at sold-out Lucas Oil Stadium kept this Michigan team rolling into the College Football Playoff semifinals. Their seed and opponent will be announced Sunday, a milestone that is only the latest in a series of firsts for this program with such a storied past.
Michigan (12-1) had never participated in the Big Ten championship since the game’s inception a decade ago. But the Wolverines’ win last week over Ohio State led to this opportunity, and they controlled the title game from the start, earning their first conference championship since 2004 and their first appearance in the College Football Playoff in school history.
“How much more can we pile into one game?” Coach Jim Harbaugh said. “The importance of one game, it’s a lot.”
These Michigan players didn’t enter this season pegged as title favorites. The Wolverines finished just 2-4 a year ago during a disappointing pandemic-shorted campaign. Michigan hadn’t won a title or beaten Ohio State under Harbaugh, but the school stuck with its coach, who took a pay cut with a restructured contract and overhauled his coaching staff this past offseason. And the players leaned in to the lack of expectations surrounding them heading into the year.
“We believe in each other,” offensive lineman Andrew Vastardis said. “We believe in ourselves. But there’s always that little external motivation.”
Just over a week ago, the Wolverines still seemed an unlikely entry to the playoff because any path to that pinnacle required a win over the Buckeyes. Recent history didn’t favor them — they had beaten their rivals just once since 2004 and had lost eight straight. But that run ended in the snow in Ann Arbor, and it turned into a springboard for them to wreck the Hawkeyes.
Michigan entered Saturday at No. 2 in the CFP rankings. Whether it stays there or moves up to No. 1 will be revealed Sunday, but the Wolverines have established one certainty the past two weeks: they belong in the playoff, along with Alabama, Georgia and undefeated Cincinnati.
This week, Harbaugh compared Michigan’s monumental win against Ohio State to the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980. The Americans still had to defeat Finland in the gold medal game, and his Wolverines needed this victory over Iowa to clinch a title and ensure a spot in the playoff. Harbaugh’s group didn’t let the high of last week’s result impede its progress toward greater accomplishments.
“We all just refocused,” defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said. “It was really hard after such an emotional win last week. It was insane.”
When Hutchinson stood on a platform during the postgame celebration receiving MVP honors, his teammates began chanting, “Hutch for Heisman!” He’s been a force all season, and with a title at stake, he and the Michigan defense stymied the Hawkeyes’ attack.
Iowa, struggling offensively and facing a 21-3 deficit in the third quarter, swapped starting quarterback Spencer Petras for Alex Padilla. During the first series after the adjustment, the Hawkeyes drove inside the Michigan 10 only to be stopped on fourth down.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines jumped ahead early, racking up 200 offensive yards in the first quarter and getting a scoring boost from a pair of explosive plays against what’s typically a stout Iowa defense. Michigan running back Blake Corum sprinted down the sideline for a 67-yard touchdown, with backup quarterback J.J. McCarthy, who has played sporadically this season, flying downfield to block a pair of defenders trying to close in on his teammate.
“I ain’t never see a quarterback do something like that,” Corum said, smiling.
The Wolverines’ defense forced a three-and-out on Iowa’s next possession, and then Michigan went up 14-0 thanks to a superb trick play. Quarterback Cade McNamara connected with running back Donovan Edwards on a swing pass, and Edwards launched the ball to a wide-open Roman Wilson for a 75-yard score. That play has “been ready for prime time for about seven weeks,” Harbaugh said, adding that Edwards is "always on the move, running when he throws it, and every time, it’s a dime.”
McNamara finished with just 169 yards passing, and Iowa’s defense, which leads the nation with 24 interceptions, snagged two picks off Michigan’s quarterbacks. The Hawkeyes couldn’t turn the first mistake into points, and the second came on McCarthy’s pass to the end zone as time expired before halftime.
Despite a quiet offensive attack during the second and third quarters (120 yards combined), Michigan delivered the late blows needed to seal the game — and then more. Hassan Haskins, the running back who scored five touchdowns last week against Ohio State, reached the end zone twice after halftime. With a significant fourth-quarter lead, Michigan ran a flea-flicker to Erick All that picked up 38 yards, and the junior tight end capped the drive with a touchdown reception.
In the game’s final minutes, the Wolverines kept passing, unwilling to simply let time drain from the clock. Edwards, already with that passing touchdown, accounted for the game’s final points with a one-yard score with 1:25 remaining. The Wolverines, who hadn’t competed on this stage before, didn’t need these late touchdowns, but they wanted them anyway.
“We defied all expectations,” Hutchinson said. “Nobody thought we could do this. Nobody thought we could ever do this, especially not this season. And man, we did it, and we did it in a very dominant fashion.”
Since its last Big Ten title 17 years ago, Michigan had cycled through two coaches and years of disappointment before landing Harbaugh, the former Michigan quarterback who returned in 2015 to lead his alma mater. His arrival from the NFL elevated the program closer to those lofty expectations of a demanding fan base, averaging 9.4 wins through his first five years, yet he had failed to win titles and grab those season-defining victories over Ohio State — until now.
In the span of eight days, Harbaugh’s team has delivered two such victories. He has given these Michigan fans, starved for marquee moments such as this, a joyous pair of weekends with hope for even more.