IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) – Michigan knows it’ll ultimately be judged by how it fares in November.
The Wolverines (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) failed their first test of the final month, losing at Iowa 24-16 on Saturday to fall into a three-way divisional tie with the Hawkeyes and Nebraska. The loss dropped Michigan from No. 13 to 22nd in the new AP Top 25 on Sunday.
Michigan fell behind 17-6 by halftime thanks in part to a pair of Denard Robinson turnovers, a hole he nearly dug the Wolverines out of before failing to punch it in from the 3-yard line on four tries in the final 16 seconds.
Michigan is now a game behind Michigan State in the Legends Division, and the Spartans (7-2, 4-1) have the upper hand thanks to their 28-14 win over the Wolverines on Oct. 15.
“Turnovers always hurt. That’s one thing that we’ve done, I’d say, a good job of … taking care of it and the ball security,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “The thing that we missed (Saturday) was that we didn’t get any back.”
For Michigan to turn a nice first season under Hoke into one to remember, its best players need to take care of the ball and make big plays when the time calls for them.
Robinson couldn’t do either against an Iowa defense that isn’t as strong as it’s been in years past.
Robinson got himself in trouble trying to make a play with Iowa linebacker Tyler Neilsen draped around his ankles in the second quarter. Robinson nearly slipped out of a sack, but he used the ball to steady himself and fumbled it away, leading to a 42-yard field goal with 2:11 left in the second quarter.
The Hawkeyes then gave Michigan great field position with a terrible kickoff, but Robinson threw an interception at the goal line that ended a miserable first half for the Wolverines.
“We were trying to make a play and we put the ball on the ground. That led to a field goal. The interception down there going in, it swings the game when you don’t have the ball and you don’t score,” Hoke said.
Michigan lost a third straight game to the Hawkeyes (6-3, 3-2) for the first time in a series that began 111 years ago.
Fair or not, Robinson’s had a hand in all those defeats.
Robinson came in for Tate Forcier in the fourth quarter in Iowa City in 2009, but his interception with 46 seconds left sealed a 30-28 win for the Hawkeyes. Last season, he racked up 105 yards rushing against Iowa but got knocked out of the game, which the Hawkeyes went on to win 38-28.
Robinson, who threw for 194 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday, might have turned his bad luck against the Hawkeyes around had Junior Hemingway’s apparent touchdown been ruled in bounds.
But it was a game decided by a few key plays, and the Wolverines simply didn’t make them.
“There are always six to eight plays in a game that are really going to define when you’re playing a good football team, when you’re playing a team on the road. You can think back and there are six or eight of those plays that really determines who executed and who didn’t,” Hoke said.
Though Michigan’s path to the inaugural Big Ten title game looks tougher than ever, it certainly isn’t out of the mix just yet.
It would certainly help if Iowa can beat Michigan State next week and finish its home schedule unbeaten. The Wolverines, who are just 1-2 on the road, need to take care of Illinois in Champaign next week with Nebraska and Ohio State visiting the Big House to end the regular season.
Michigan still has a chance to prove itself in November. But after losing at Iowa – which suddenly is right back into the thick of the Legends race itself – the Wolverines don’t have any margin for error left.
“You remember the taste. You forget about it after (Sunday) and improve, watch the game film, and it’s on to Illinois next week,” Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)