By Andrew Thomison | @Andrew_Thomison
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — “Who has it any better than us?” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said once more, after his Wolverines won their third consecutive Big Ten football championship, defeating Iowa 26-0.
In a perfect season marked by a pair of suspensions of the coach, including the conference-imposed three-game sanction resulting from Michigan’s signal-stealing scandal, the Wolverines celebrated on a victory platform at Lucas Oil Stadium. Michigan’s second consecutive 13-0 season assured the Wolverines of a spot in the College Football Playoff, with a chance to win the school’s first national championship since it shared the 1997 title with Nebraska.
Michigan extended its record of Big Ten championships to 45 and won a third straight outright title for the first time in school history. The last Michigan span this successful came in the five seasons from 1988 through 1992, when Michigan won four of five outright titles.
After failing to reach the first 10 Big Ten championship games, the Wolverines have come within one game of matching Ohio State’s streak of four titles from 2017 through 2020.
Michigan was led by graduate defensive back Mike Sainristil, whose two forced fumbles created pivotal moments.
“When the magic needs to happen, Mikey makes it happen,” Harbaugh said of Sainristil. The second of Iowa’s three fumbles, committed by Iowa sophomore quarterback Deacon Hill after a replay decision overruled a call of incomplete pass, led to Blake Corum’s second touchdown, a 6-yard run that gave Michigan a 17-0 lead in the third quarter. Corum tied Anthony Thomas with 55 career rushing touchdowns, the most in Michigan history.
Sainristil was voted the winner of the Grange-Griffin MVP award, joining Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson as the only defensive players to earn the award in the game’s 13-year history.
“Mike’s a tone setter for this team, like coach likes to say,” senior edge rusher Jaylen Harrell said of Sainristil. “Mike’s a leader for us, a captain. Mike just keeps showing up every week, day in and day out.”
Michigan’s defense, which ranked No. 1 in the nation with an average of 10.3 points allowed, joined the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes as the only teams with shutout victories in the championship game. In its three conference championship victories, the Wolverines have allowed a total of nine second-half points. Iowa’s total of 155 offensive yards was the fewest Michigan allowed this season.
“We’ve been here going on three years in a row,” Harrell said. “The feeling’s kind of different, but now it’s like, ‘Okay, let’s finish it. Let’s get the job done.’”
Harrell said the team never really saw the coach’s suspensions as a distraction. If anything, Harrell believes, all those outside opinions fueled the team.
“Oh, for sure, especially for people that were like, ‘Oh, y’all don’t deserve this,’” Harrell said. The team, he said, responded with its play.
“We just came together and blocked out all of the noise,” he said. “We did this for coach Harbaugh.”
Michigan, which had averaged 394.5 yards per game, was limited to 213. The Wolverines received a major boost in the first quarter from freshman Semaj Morgan, whose first college punt return was for a game-record 87 yards, leading to Corum’s 2-yard touchdown and a 10-0 lead with 1:07 to go in the first quarter.
The Wolverines’ defense helped set their offense up in great scoring position. Five of the six Michigan scoring drives lasted 28 or fewer yards.
It was a different story for Iowa. Although the Hawkeyes held the Wolverines to 10 first-half points, Michigan’s lowest total this season, Iowa’s offense managed just 155 total yards and seven first downs. Hill was sacked three times.
“Tonight is a low point,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “These guys laid it out there….Everybody laid it out there. Didn’t go our way, but they’ll get back on their feet because that’s the kind of people they are.”
With a Big Ten championship secured, Michigan positioned itself to become the No. 1-ranked team and make a second consecutive appearance in the College Football Playoff. As the Wolverines stood on the victory stand, there was an announcement over the public address system that Harbaugh had requested that Zak Zinter, a senior offensive lineman who fractured a tibia and fibula in his left leg a week earlier, would accept the championship trophy from Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti.
The Wolverines had already made their statement.
“We’ve kind of changed the narrative how people look at Michigan,” Corum said.