Iowa 24, Michigan 21: When the linebackers have the final word

Hitchens, defense breathe life into the Hawkeyes

March 28, 2014 | 11:57 pm

IOWA CITY -- It happened on the quiet part of a play. The quarterback sped up field, took a left and straddled the out of bounds. This is usually when players let up and start looking to line up.

Not this time.

Iowa linebacker Anthony Hitchens saw Devin Gardner had the ball in the wrong arm. He took a punch at it and ended up flat on the Kinnick Stadium FieldTurf. And there was the ball, bouncing inches from his facemask. The ball, the beautful, beautiful ball.

"The ball could've easily gone out of bounds," Hitchens said. "I was in the right place at the right time."

Hitchens' play halted Michigan's final drive and sealed off Iowa's 24-21 victory Saturday before 65,708 fans. Suddenly, a game that kicked off as the coldest in Iowa history -- 18 degrees with 18 mph winds out of the northwest, topping 23 degrees in 1926 -- broke out into "In Heaven There Is No Beer," a run-off interview with a choked up coach and sunny thoughts.

Yes, 18 degrees at kickoff. This set up to be a linebackers' game, not a quarterback's. It scripted that way all along for Iowa's senior linebacking trio of Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey. They were going to have a say how they went out at Kinnick. They ended up having the last word.

"Maybe he [Gardner] expected not to be touched, one of those things," senior middle linebacker James Morris said. "That's why you play to the whistle."

Michigan had a chance to drive for the tying field goal, facing second-and-11 from Iowa's 39 with the wind to its back. Gardner tried to finish off an 8-yard gain and also ended up flat on the sideline. There was a review, but Gardner knew. It was Iowa's ball with 2:12 left.

"I think he was trying to decide if he wanted to get out of bounds or try to get a little more," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "It was somewhere where, at the end of the day, he had the opportunity to get out of bounds, and I'd rather him get out of bounds."

This just wasn't a day for quarterbacks. This was the frozen neck roll of a day made for Iowa's linebackers, who spearheaded a defensive effort that held the opposing offense to less than 200 yards (UM had 158 yards of offense) for the third time this season.

"Seniors can get distracted and go out there and punch the clock," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, referring to the tone Hitchens, Morris and Kirksey set from day 1 this year, "but, boy, those guys were going hard all the time."

The Hawkeyes (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten) probably played their way to a Florida bowl. Ferentz, who made it through the Big Ten Network postgame without tearing up, was told afterward it was the first time Iowa had beaten Michigan (7-4, 3-4) three straight times at Kinnick.

"I'm glad we got three," Ferentz said. "I was wondering about that at halftime."

Yep.

The Hawkeyes were a frozen cadaver in the first half, trailing the Wolverines 21-7 at the break. The Hawkeyes' first play was a pick 6. Quarterback Jake Rudock, who finished 19 of 30 for 239 yards, two TDs and three interceptions, was pressured and floated the ball into the waiting arms of defensive end Brennan Beyer.

"At that point, I'm thinking there's a lot of game left," Rudock said. "What else can you think?"

Another Rudock interception turned into a 14-7 deficit. And then the Wolverines took advantage of the wind and drove 47 yards and scored Gardner to Jeremy Gallon for a 21-7 lead with 41 seconds left in the first half.

Halftime, as you might imagine, got a little intense. Offensive line coach Brian Ferentz made some points, tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz recalled. The seniors made some more points. Many points were made and, apparently, received.

"Some guys are yellers and some guys want to hold your hand and everything in between," Morris said.

Three plays into the second half, Rudock wiped off the ugly first with a 55-yard TD pass to sophomore wide receiver Tevaun Smith, who ran a quick slant and kind of one-handed juggled the catch.

"The ball kind of sailed on me," said Smith, who led Iowa with five catches for 97 yards. "It just kind of got right passed my head. I honestly reached up and there it was. I was hungry for my first touchdown."

Morris, Kirksey and defensive tackle Carl Davis teamed up on a 14-yard sack of Gardner, forcing Michigan to punt from its 18. Iowa took over from its 40 with 1:21 left in the third quarter.

Iowa faced a fourth-and-1 from UM's 24 and handed the ball to running back Mark Weisman, who followed Iowa's O-line surge for a first down. Two plays later, Iowa ran the same play. The O-line won the surge and Weisman ran through a couple of Wolverines for a 9-yard TD to tie it 21 with 12:11 left in the game.

"We ran the same play a couple of times in a row, that's all the O-line," Weisman said.

Iowa began its next drive into the wind, and Rudock hit Smith for a 21-yard gain on first down. The drive stalled at Michigan's 16, where senior Mike Meyer hit a 34-yard field goal to give Iowa a 24-21 lead with 6:02 left in the game.

From there, it was on Iowa's defense. Hitchens' strip and fumble happened and some of his teammates didn't know about it until they saw him running toward the Iowa sideline holding the ball in the air.

This was good, this was where Iowa wanted it all along Saturday, a frozen linebacker's neck roll pad of a day.

Hitchens wore a shirt in the locker room that had "The Family" written in script on the front. He talked about the linebacker group going over to Morris' house for meals every other week or so.

"We're a tight group. We're going to be friends forever," he said. "It was very special to go out there."

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