By Mitch Friesenborg
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – After a long, difficult walk in the belly of Lucas Oil Stadium, Iowa sophomore quarterback Deacon Hill told his teammates he loved them. The Hawkeyes had just gotten shellacked by Michigan 26-0 in the Big Ten Football Championship Game. For these Hawkeyes, it was a natural response to lean on each other, for they had done it all season through the good and the bad. It speaks to the culture coach Kirk Ferentz has built at Iowa over the last quarter century.
“He’s built that family culture, that resilience that you see within this team,” Hill said. “Everybody believes in each other, no one gives up on each other. I think that’s just the biggest thing, the way this team believes in each other, no matter who steps up to the plate.”
Hill’s eyes were red and puffy as he spoke to reporters in a room next to the Iowa dressing room. He spoke with professionalism, even when facing questions about every missed opportunity and bad play. He had been sacked four times with two leading to fumbles that resulted in 10 Michigan points that became a knockout blow to Iowa.
One of those turnovers came in the third quarter when Michigan defensive back Mike Sainristil flew off the edge on a corner blitz. Closing in from Hill’s right side, Sainristil lunged forward, extended his left hand and met Hill’s right hand as the ball came loose. Officials immediately whistled the play dead and ruled an incomplete pass as Michigan graduate defensive back Josh Wallace casually picked the bouncing ball off the turf.
But when a review led to a reversal, the play was ruled a fumble and Wallace was credited with a recovery at the Iowa 12-yard line. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz placed the ball at the Iowa 6, and Wolverine running back Blake Corum scored from there one play later.
“I was looking downfield,” Hill said. “Went to throw. Ball got knocked out. I thought it was an incomplete pass, but you know, it turned out the way it did.”
Kirk Ferentz was not satisfied with the explanation he received on the Iowa sideline. “I was told the arm was going forward but the hand wasn’t,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s possible. I’m not saying that cost us the game, but it’s a pivotal play.”
Regardless, Hill had to shoulder that burden, feeling he was a major reason why the Hawkeyes lost under the big lights. He completed 18 of 32 passes for 120 yards. Iowa’s offense crossed midfield just three times and advanced no further than the Michigan 29. Whether the turnovers were his fault or not, the fact remains that Hill couldn’t make the plays when his team needed him the most.
“When you give everything you have into something, for so long, and it turns out not the way you wanted to, the emotions are gonna come out,” Hill said when asked about the emotions of the game. “And I know I’m not the only one.”
Hill didn’t expect to be in this situation when he transferred to Iowa from Wisconsin last spring. Starting quarterback Cade McNamara, who beat Iowa with Michigan in the championship two years ago, tore an anterior cruciate ligament in September. Hill and the Hawkeyes finished their season 10-3, the fifth 10-win season under Ferentz and Iowa’s seventh all-time. Yet, the two times they played top 10-ranked opponents this year, Iowa was held scoreless by Penn State and Michigan. For the team, and Hill especially, an Iowa season marked by an ability to deal with challenges led to disappointment on a championship night.
“I think the reason I got so emotional is just because each guy on the team I feel pretty close with, I love all of them to death,” Hill said. “Guys like Cade (McNamara) and Erick (All) who wish 100 percent they were playing this game, I wish we had gotten the win for them. I mean all the seniors like Joe (Evans), Nick (DeJong), Jay (Higgins), all those guys, I’m pretty close with all of them, wishing we could have got that for them.”