By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – You can question the talent on the Iowa football team.
You can question the play calling and whether Iowa is too predictable on offense and too passive on defense.
You can question why Iowa doesn’t seem to have receivers who get separation, safeties who tackle well in space or anybody who can make a field goal beyond 40 yards with any consistency.
You can question all those things because they are legitimate concerns.
But please don’t question the heart, the resolve or the character of the 2016 Iowa football team, or of its coaches, because you don’t accomplish what they did under the stars at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday without having all of those strengths.
What most assumed would be a pummeling in prime time at Iowa's expense slowly and methodically turned into one of the greatest upsets in the history of the Iowa football program.
Freshman kicker Keith Duncan will forever be part of Hawkeye lore, even if he doesn’t make another field goal in his life because the one he made from 33 yards as time expired to defeat No. 2 Michigan 14-13 on Saturday was special, almost beyond belief.
It was part of Rob Houghtlin, part Daniel Murray.
It was the razor-thin difference between winning and losing a game that nobody with any common sense thought Iowa had a chance of winning.
“It was an incredible feeling kicking that in front of seventy thousand fans,” said Duncan, a walk-on from Matthews, N.C. “I can’t even speak right now. Kinnick has the best fans in the world. We’ve got the best coaches and I’ve got the best teammates.
“It’s an incredible feeling.”
Those same great fans were frustrated and angry heading into Saturday’s game because their beloved football team mostly had been a huge disappointment this season.
Iowa was coming off a 41-14 loss at Penn State on the previous Saturday in which the Hawkeyes allowed 599 yards and were more or less accused by a Penn State player of quitting in the second half.
To be called a quitter is the ultimate insult in sports. It points to a weakness in character, courage and toughness.
That accusation was just part of the pressure and the burden that the Iowa players carried into Saturday’s game, along with the sobering reality of a once-promising season rapidly slipping away.
And yet, the players and coaches still found a way to prevail against an opponent and a head coach who were the toast of college football heading into the game.
“We didn’t make enough plays to extend drives and convert first downs, and we missed some deep throws,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “Close. But give Iowa credit. They tackled well. They blocked well. They played a very good football game.
“So congratulate them and move on.”
While Duncan was the hero of Saturday’s game, senior defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson and junior running back Akrum Wadley were the stars. The 305-pound Johnson was impossible to block at times, while Wadley was a terror in space.
Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis has been ripped for not being creative enough with his use of Wadley. But that wasn’t the case on Saturday.
Iowa’s only touchdown came on a play in which Wadley slipped out the backfield on fourth down and caught a 3-yard pass from quarterback C.J. Beathard late in the second quarter. It appeared that Wadley would stay into block for Beathard, but Wadley let the Michigan defenders blow past him before sneaking into the flat to catch the ball.
It was a creative call that was executed perfectly.
As for Johnson, he scored Iowa’s first two points of the game on a safety with 6 minutes, 31 seconds left in the second quarter. He finished with nine tackles, including two for losses and one sack.
Iowa held Michigan to just 201 yards, which was nearly 300 yards below its per-game average.
Wadley almost outgained Michigan by himself with 167 total yards, including 115 rushing against a defense that had only been allowing 107.2 rushing yards per game. His slippery running style brought back memories of former Iowa running backs Tavian Banks and Ronnie Harmon.
And speaking of Harmon, he was Iowa’s starting running back the last time the Hawkeyes defeated a second-ranked opponent in 1985. Michigan was also the opponent 31 years ago with Harbaugh as its starting quarterback.
Rob Houghtlin played the role of Keith Duncan by making a field-goal as time expired, lifting Iowa to a 12-10 victory.
The fans rushed the field in 1985 and again on Saturday, two moments that will forever be frozen in time.
Iowa improved to 6-4 overall with Saturday’s victory and will be favored to win at lowly Illinois next Saturday.
The circumstances are similar to 2008 when a 5-4 Iowa team defeated third-ranked Penn State 24-23 on a last-second field by Daniel Murray. The Hawkeyes would go on to finishing 9-4 that season behind 2008 Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene.
The current team doesn’t have a running back of Greene’s ilk, but Wadley and 225-pound senior LeShun Daniels are no pushovers. They both are quite effective when the offensive line does its job, as was the case on Saturday.
Iowa beat Michigan in the trenches on both sides of the ball, sort of like a wounded animail defending its honor and turf.
Beathard only passed for 66 yards, but he ran for eight yards on 3rd-and-7 to help setup Duncan's game-winning field. It was the kind of gutsy play that Beathad made so often last season.
Duncan also showed composure beyond his years. We're talking about a true freshman who to this point has been Iowa's short-range kicker. Anything beyond 40 yards has been the responsibility of Miguel Recinos, who missed one of those attempts on Saturday.
"I think the most important thing, once we got to game time, it's just a matter of our players believing in themselves, believing in their teammates, and most importantly, playing with the heart it takes to compete every snap," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. "And that's what it took tonight."
It's not easy to keep believing when so many of your supporters lose faith. If anybody outside of the Iowa coaches and past, current and future Iowa players tell you they thought Iowa would beat Michigan, they're probbly not telling the truth.
The expected outcome of Saturday's game was basically a foregone conclusion to everybody except the Iowa players and coaches.
Thanks to their unwavering confidence and reslience, the game now stands as one of the greatest upsets in school history. It also serves as a reminder that the foundation still is strong under Ferentz.