Classic Big Ten Football: Iowa at Michigan, 1997

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Classic Big Ten Football: Iowa at Michigan, 1997

Every week, the Big Ten Blog will break down one classic game from the Big Ten's long, storied history. Today, we're going back 15 years, to a comeback that sent two teams on very different paths.

Iowa and Michigan aren't rivals, except in the sense that they've been in the same conference for many decades. But over the last 30 years, the two programs have had a stellar competition with each other; Michigan holds a 15-9-1 record in that span, with both teams registering six single-possession victories. 13 out of 25 games coming down to the final possession is pretty stellar.

One such game came in 1997, and there might not be a worse loss since for Iowa fans.

Despite being ranked 15th in the nation, Iowa had no business winning this game. No. 5 Michigan's defense was world-class--it boasted a Heisman-winning cornerback in Charles Woodson, for crying out loud--and the offensive line was led by two-time All-Big Ten tackle (and offensive captain) Jon Jansen and future All-Americans Jeff Backus and Steve Hutchinson.

And yet Iowa had weapons of its own. QB Matt Sherman was coming off a 2,500-yard campaign, RB Tavian Banks was one of the fastest players in the Big Ten, and WR Tim Dwight was an All-American and, at that point, the best kick/punt returner in college football history. So this wouldn't be an unfair fight, it's just that Michigan was better.

As expected, Michigan's defense would not let Iowa move the chains, but the Hawkeyes used a 53-yard rush off tackle by Banks to go up 7-0 early in the second quarter. Michigan responded with a Tai Streets touchdown in front of cornerback Plez Atkins--you'll hear those two guys' names again--and when Matt Sherman threw a pick to Michigan safety Marcus Ray a couple minutes before halftime, it looked like Michigan might go into halftime with a lead.

That did not happen. Brian Griese threw a strike to Ed Gibson, who caught the pass in stride and ran unmolested to the 1-yard line, which is great news for Michigan except for the fact that Ed Gibson was an Iowa defensive back. Iowa punched the ball on the next snap, and the Big House was ill at ease.

That uncomfortableness turned into downright horror shortly thereafter, as Michigan almost ran the clock out on the half before being forced to punt from its own end zone with 11 seconds left. Jason Vinson kicked the ball to the dead middle of the field, right at Tim Dwight, and that is a very bad idea. Dwight weaved through traffic, found a seam, and took the ball to the house as time expired in the half.

That punt return has become something of a fish tale to Michigan fans; bring it up, and they'll cite as many as three blocks in the back that led to Dwight springing loose. That, of course, is preposterous. You can watch for yourself. But there is one, and sometimes, one is all you need.

At any rate, Michigan left the field down 21-7 basically out of nowhere; Iowa had taken one snap inside the 50 for the entire first half, and it was at the 1-yard line. The Big House rained boos down on the field, though they were directed more at the referees than the 14-point deficit.

The second half saw Michigan reassert its dominance. Brian Griese had an up-and-down game, but he found Russell Shaw for a 10-yard score three minutes into the third quarter. Later, the Wolverines would use a big run from Anthony Thomas (20 carries, 129 yards) to get inside the 5-yard line, and Griese would punch the ball in on a sneak on 3rd and goal. Tie game, and all the momentum was on Michigan's side.

That momentum lasted for approximately never, as Tim Dwight sprang another big return--this on the ensuing kickoff--to the Michigan 27-yard line. Iowa's offense didn't get very far thereafter, but they were close enough for a 38-yard field goal and the lead.

The two teams traded ineffectualities (new word alert) until 6:30 to go, when Plez Atkins (remember him?) draped himself all over Tai Streets (remember him?) on a third-down pass at the Michigan 30. Michigan got the flag and the first down, and never looked back. Griese found TE Jerame Tuman on two successive strikes downfield, and Michigan drove inside the five before a third-and-goal rollout pass by Griese found Tuman in traffic. Touchdown, and Michigan had its first lead of the game with less than three minutes to go.

Iowa's offense had been, aside from the Banks run, an utter horror show up to that point. The Hawkeyes would end the game with just 187 yards of total offense, and Matt Sherman's final stat line was 8-21 for 86 yards and three interceptions. Remember, Michigan's defense was world-class that year.

Photo via "Stadium and Main"

And yet the Hawkeyes made a drive of it. Sherman worked the offense up past midfield, and after a Clint Copenhaver sack (more on that in a bit), he found Banks on a wheel route for 34 yards and a first down at the Michigan 26 with under a minute left. The heroic, storybook final drive was actually happening. Iowa was going to pull off the win at the Big House.

But on the very next snap, Matt Sherman threw an inexplicable pass right to Michigan linebacker Sam Sword, and that was the game. The image of Sherman lying on the ground, hands clutching his helmet in disbelief, will forever be seared into the memories of Iowa fans watching the game. The football gods are merciless and cruel. The football gods subsist on anger and heartbreak, and they feasted that afternoon.

That would be the last pass Sherman threw in the regular season. Shortly thereafter, Iowa announced that Sherman had broken the thumb on his throwing hand in the game. Officially, the injury happened late in the game, and watching the film again, Sherman's reaction to the Copenhaver sack is odd and draws the referees' attention. But he completed a strike to Banks after that, so that's up for debate.

Unofficially, the story is that Sherman broke his thumb punching a locker (or door or wall or whatever) after the game. Perhaps that's just what fans want to believe.

It didn't seem obvious at the time, but the game featured two teams that were about to go in very different directions. Michigan, of course, would go undefeated and win the AP National Championship that season, allowing 9.5 points per game in the process and never ceding more than 16 points to any other opponent for the year.

Without Sherman, Iowa faltered down the stretch, finishing at 7-5 with a 17-7 loss in the Sun Bowl. The wheels completely came off the Hawkeyes' wagon the following year as Iowa went 3-8, and Hayden Fry retired after that season.

It would be another five years before Iowa came back to the Big House, and some might say Iowa exacted its revenge with a 34-9 drubbing there, Michigan's worst Homecoming loss ever.

But that's not how revenge works. Not in a sport where players cycle through every four years, and sometimes coaches come and go just as quickly. Iowa didn't get revenge because there was no revenge to be gotten--just the inescapable, crushing sense of defeat that hit Matt Sherman and everyone else in black and gold that October afternoon.

Yes, I'm still bitter.

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