After seeing Oklahoma State come up literally a few inches short in their conference title game to end their playoff hopes, one week after beating a rival that they rarely get the better of, I primed myself for a Michigan disappointment in the Big Ten Championship game against Iowa. I had prepared myself, even, to write a rant on this very website about the phony progress of making this non-traditional game the end of the college football season instead of the classic rivalries. But then Michigan’s defense came through big-time, better than they had even in any of their other great performances all season, and blasted the Wolverines past their potential demoralizing stumbling block. The Big Ten Championship was not quite a start-to-finish blowout, but with a run of Wolverine touchdowns at the end, the final score read an astonishing, satisfying 42-3 in favor of The Victors.
There were two absolutely awesome plays in this game that I want to talk about. The first came when the freshman running back Donovan Edwards behaved in a manner completely out of character for a freshman running back. Hampered in part by injury, Edwards was a bit player in Michigan’s offense for most of the year, touching the ball just three times for 20 total yards in the Ohio State win. But with Michigan up 7-0 in the first quarter after an Iowa punt, Cade McNamara threw a screen pass to Edwards that, suddenly and shockingly, he turned and threw as a massive bomb downfield to the wide-open receiver, Roman Wilson. How often does a 75-yard passing touchdown by a team you like leave you frantically searching the name of the passer on your phone? Well, Edwards will never be forgotten or underestimated again.
The other absolutely awesome play happened late in the third quarter at the end of a seven-minute Iowa drive. The score was 21-3, and the Hawkeyes had just changed quarterbacks from Spencer Petras to Alex Padilla. They pretty much had to score a touchdown to keep hope alive going into the fourth. Padilla helped the offense grab bite-sized chunks of yardage as they moved down the field, and then at the Michigan eight, the champs of the Big Ten West faced fourth-and-3 and stacked the line with blockers. But all the protection in the world couldn’t save Padilla from the Michigan rush, which helped hold Iowa to just 4.6 yards per pass and 3.2 yards per run all game. As the walls closed in on Padilla, he found a receiver for a completion, but Tyler Goodson was a whole seven yards behind the line of scrimmage. This was the part where everybody in maize and blue could let go of their worst fears, when our texts back and forth across the country stopped caring about Iowa and started thinking about how the team might look against Alabama or Georgia.
Big Ten titles look and feel a lot different than they did the last time Michigan won (well, shared) one in 2004. Back then, the Wolverines’ game against Ohio State (which they lost, actually) was their last of the calendar year. It wasn’t until January 1 that they took the field again, in the Rose Bowl against No. 6 Texas. I had a bit of a tough time explaining the current system to the more casual fans watching with me on Saturday night, but it basically boiled down to, “Yes, they beat Ohio State last week in what basically felt like a championship game, but now they have to beat another team that’s not as good as Ohio State to actually win the Big Ten. And if they do that, they’ll without a doubt get picked by a committee as one of the top four teams in the country, and so on New Year’s Eve they’ll play a playoff game, and if they win that they’re in the real title game on Jan. 10.” They’re this close to regionals!
But if each individual game is stripped of some significance due to the pile-up of important contests at the end of the year, it’s still no less invigorating to watch a dominant football team just rip apart an adversary like this on a high-stakes stage. A lot of people, in the week leading up to this one, compared the emotional comedown from Ohio State to Iowa as not unlike Team USA hockey needing to beat Finland for the gold medal after the Miracle on Ice. But in that game, the Americans went down 2-1 after two periods, and Herb Brooks famously told his men in the intermission, “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your fucking graves” before the comeback. No such panic, concern, or old-school motivational tactics were needed for this one. The better team simply proved it, and now they’ll finally have a bit of a break to savor their success.