IOWA CITY — Never mind escaping the field before the stampede. Not every Michigan football player was even to his feet before the throngs descended from the Kinnick Stadium bleachers on Saturday night, leaving empty beer cans and Marlboro packs in their wake, orphaning mittens in their delirious rush from the stands to the field. The Wolverines had lost for the first time in 2016, crash-landing with a 14–13 defeat, the first truly suspect effort in a previously unimpeachable season. But that bouncing, screaming mass of bodies delighting in their demise was actually the hardest thing to get by.
Be it a cliché reflex, a coping mechanism or really the only way to view an unalterable result, Michigan insisted it had forgotten its fall from perfection as soon as it happened. That it had digested a defeat before it digested its boxes of postgame Chick-fil-A grub. That it pivoted to the idea of controlling the future and achieving all the championship goals it had in mind before its headlining role in college football’s latest November weekend of calamity. Before the game, equipment staffers hung blue tarps and various team-colored posters on the visitors’ locker room walls, to cover up the infamous pink paint job; after the game, the team essentially stuffed the outcome of the visit behind all the redecorating material and left it there.
“We’re not happy,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight said, adding a touch of an acerbic tone to properly measure the team’s mood. “We’re not chipper. It stings. But, hey, it’s life, it’s football. We’ll figure it out.”
Only moments earlier, Speight more explicitly described a “pissed off” team, but this was about as high as anyone’s blood pressure spiked, at least for public consumption. How Michigan responds to all of this is at least a little bit of a mystery, simply because it hasn’t had to respond to a loss to date. It tried to set out some clues anyway late Saturday. Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh entered that locker room and declared it a new week and a new team just minutes after a 33-yard field goal went from the foot of Iowa’s Keith Duncan through the uprights for a moment of symmetry that was either galling or enthralling, depending on your side: The Hawkeyes’ last win over a Michigan team ranked No. 2 in the AP poll, in 1985 (when Harbaugh was the Wolverines' quarterback), also arrived via a field goal as time expired.
That was a moment in history, though Iowa's victory then was not as much of a surprise as it came into the game ranked No. 1. By the time Harbaugh left his crew for a media debriefing, he expected this one would be, too. “Every little thing doesn’t always go your way,” he said, flatly, a coach dismayed by a loss but straining to see what comes next. Because, in truth, there can be a lot that comes next.
The Wolverines can’t afford another defeat. That particular stress is now unavoidable. But a win against Indiana and a win against Ohio State puts Michigan in the Big Ten championship game, and a win in Indianapolis puts Michigan in the College Football Playoff. That is the path. It is a really narrow path, and someone might want to sweep up the glass shards all along it, but it’s a path. In that reality, the losing side found refuge on Saturday.
“Can’t do anything about it now,” safety Dymonte Thomas said. “The only thing we can do is win out.”
Reasonable minds can be concerned about Michigan’s ability to do this, especially on Nov. 26 in Columbus, especially after what little the offense managed to accomplish on Nov. 12 in Iowa City.
In their previous four games, the Wolverines ran up 600, 561, 436 and 660 yards of offense. They lurched to 201 against Iowa; the previous season low was 349 against Wisconsin in early October. The run game churned out 2.8 yards per carry. Speight had a frightful night, going 11 of 26 for 103 yards and missing two deep balls—throwing one short and one long—that were touchdowns in waiting. Six of Michigan’s final seven true offensive possessions ended in a punt or a turnover. When the defense bailed out the offense with a stop late in the fourth quarter, that offense delivered a three-and-out that delivered the ball right back to Iowa for its game-winning drive.
That drive was abetted by a facemask penalty on a punt return that Michigan fans will howl about for eternity. Better they direct their ire toward an offense that even allowed for the possibility of a bad call ruining the night. “We missed blocks, we missed holes, we missed throws, we missed catches,” running back Karan Higdon said. This was an attack that dropped 45 points on Colorado and 49 points on Penn State. It’s also now scraped out 14 points against Wisconsin and the 13 against Iowa. Which offense rides to Columbus in a couple weekends will be of great interest, because the one that showed up in Iowa City isn’t going to get anything done against the Buckeyes.
But possibility abounds. That much wasn’t lost against Iowa. “We were treating every week like a championship week, and that was obviously the goal, to finish the season undefeated,” Speight said. “But everything is still right there for us. We just have to handle our business for the rest of the regular season and let it play out. But it’s all still right there.”
Michigan’s capacity to reach what’s there depends on its capacity to react to this setback. “We’re all going to do our jobs,” Harbaugh said afterwards, when asked how he thought his team would respond. Really, even for a head coach, guessing at that might be a fool’s errand. But the Wolverines pushed past that frothing Iowa crowd as fast as possible. There was apparently no point in stopping to consider the result that crowd crowed over.
“You make a mistake, you fix it,” Higdon said. “If you ever have an outcome you don’t want, you fix the problem.”
That’s the job, and as of Saturday, the work must be done with urgency. There’s no getting around that.