IOWA CITY, Iowa — When nobody else believed, the Iowa Hawkeyes believed.
When Vegas oddsmakers listed the Hawkeyes as three-touchdown home underdogs to No. 3-ranked Michigan, the players still believed. When sportswriters like myself picked Michigan to shut out Iowa, the Hawkeyes shut us up.
Why? How? Because they believed.
In rub-your-eyes fashion, the Hawkeyes shocked the unbeaten Wolverines 14-13 on a 33-yard, last-second field goal from true freshman Keith Duncan. It marked the ultimate turnaround from one of the worst performances under longtime coach Kirk Ferentz last week to a resurrection Saturday night.
You had to see it to believe it.
The seeds for this shocker were planted on the flight to Iowa City after an embarrassing 41-14 loss at Penn State. Throughout the week, the players cultivated their belief that beating Michigan (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten) was possible. By Thursday, a chance conversation between quarterback C.J. Beathard and middle linebacker Josey Jewell reinforced the possibility of an upset.
Jewell asked Beathard about Michigan’s defense, and the senior quarterback said the Wolverines were good. Their conversation then shifted to the other side of the ball.
“I was like, ‘How did their offense look?’ ” Beathard asked. ” ‘Their offense is good,’ but Josey told me, ‘But we we’re ready to go. I feel it all week.’ (Jewell) said, ‘Give us 14 points and we’ll win the game.’ I was like, ‘All right.’ It just happened to be that exact thing.”
“That is accurate,” an almost embarrassed Jewell admitted. “I did tell him if they scored 14 points this week, we’d help them out and we’d get a victory. I didn’t say I called it or anything. I just said it early on.”
With sold-out Kinnick Stadium as the backdrop, the belief was apparent from Iowa’s opening drive. Facing the nation’s best defense, the Hawkeyes drove to midfield. Even trailing 10-0 midway through the second quarter, Iowa’s defense shifted the game’s momentum when Jaleel Johnson tackled Michigan running back De’Veon Smith for a safety.
The Hawkeyes (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten) stormed up the field and reached the Michigan 3-yard line. When a third-down pass fell incomplete, Ferentz opted for a touchdown on fourth down instead of a field goal. On a perfectly executed play, Beathard dropped straight back, running back Akrum Wadley slipped past two blitzing defenders and Beathard hit him for the touchdown. Even as wide receiver Adrian Falconer dropped a 2-point conversion pass in the end zone, the Hawkeyes closed the gap to 10-8.
The belief became contagious.
“(Offensive coordinator Greg) Davis came in at halftime and said, ‘We’re one catch away from it being a tie ballgame,'” Beathard said. “It was a 0-0 ballgame going on in the second half. We knew it was going to be a battle, a tough game. If we wanted to hang with these guys and play, we had to come out and play tough.”
Iowa forced a turnover on the second-half kickoff and turned it into a field goal. Michigan later countered with a field goal of its own early in the fourth quarter The Hawkeyes’ victory hopes appeared dashed when Beathard tossed a long interception with 1:54 left. But the belief remained in place, just as it was in the first quarter. Just as it was in practice all week.
“We had three timeouts left; the defense was doing a great job all game long,” Beathard said. “I knew we’d hold them there and we did and we got the ball back.”
The Hawkeyes took over at the Michigan 36 after the Wolverines were whistled for a face mask penalty following a punt return. Four plays later, Duncan stood 33 yards from immortality, just like Daniel Murray eight years ago against No. 3 Penn State. Just like Rob Houghtlin in the epic 1985 clash between No. 1 Iowa and No. 2 Michigan.
Just like Murray and just like Houghtlin, Duncan drilled his kick. Just like the other two games, fans rushed the field. It was something the players visualized all week. It became reality late Saturday night.
“To knock off the No. 3 school, that’s big-time. That’s huge. That’s what we’re looking for,” Johnson said. “That’s what coach Ferentz talked about all throughout the week. He talked about making miracles happen and coming into the week, we had that opportunity in our hands for us to go out and grab it.”
“That’s one of the things you remember for the rest of our lives, this feeling,” Beathard said. “We talked about that all week. We knew if we win this game, you know dang well the crowd’s going to storm the field. None of us have every really been a part of that.”
Fans rushed the field. Players were trapped amid the chaos. Iowa’s coaches left their box whooping so loudly it echoed down the hall, all the way to the Kinnick Stadium elevators. Even Wadley, who often straddles the line between Ferentz’ doghouse and penthouse, kept a wide smile about a long embrace with his head coach.
“He trusts me to be in this game, the last man in the game,” Wadley said. “He hugged me. It felt good. He gave me a big hug. Yeah. Yeah. That’s big.”
Journey’s timeless classic “Don’t Stop Believin'” blared throughout Kinnick Stadium. The perfect song for the perfect moment. Believe it everyone. It happened.