ANN ARBOR - Two behemoths stood nose to nose and pushed and shoved and wrestled with each other as day melted into night. Iowa and Michigan matched size and strength up front, and battled to a near stalemate.
But in the game's waning moments, the littlest guy on the field was the difference maker. Michigan had Mike Hart, and Iowa did not, and the No. 2-ranked Wolverines came out 20-6 victors in the Big Ten brawl.
In the fourth quarter, with Michigan sitting on a tenuous 13-6 lead, Hart carried the ball on 11 of 17 offensive plays. The 5-9, 190-pound junior also dealt Iowa the finishing blow, running 10 yards for a touchdown with four minutes left in the game. When Hart took the handoff from quarterback Chad Henne, the Iowa defense was less than a step away, but Hart froze in his tracks for a split second, then cut back the other direction to reach the end zone untouched.
"He seems to be an offensive spark for us," Michigan defensive tackle Alan Branch said about Hart. "He'll get things going, and then they seem to get their swagger back. He's a great player, and I'm glad he's on my team."
Hart carried the ball 31 times for 126 yards on a day when Michigan's offense was otherwise sluggish. He passed the 1,000-yard mark for the season early in the fourth quarter when Michigan (8-0, 5-0) led just 10-6.
"We're winning, and that's all that matters," Hart said. "A thousand yards, two thousand, three thousand - all that matters is we're winning."
Hart said carrying the bulk of the load for the Wolverines does not bother him. The Wolverines are 16-1 in games where Hart has more than 100 yards rushing.
I love it. I ve always said, the more carries I get, the better I am, Hart said. I don t even get worn down.
Iowa blinked first in the conservative, field-position battle, but had its hand forced a bit. Michigan linebacker Shawn Crable blitzed on a second-and-long play from the 38, and stripped Drew Tate as he sacked the Iowa quarterback. Defensive back Brandon Harrison recovered the fumble at the Michigan 41.
Henne went to wide receiver Adrian Arrington on four of the next five plays to move the Wolverines to a first down at the Iowa 31, but two sacks by the Hawkeyes cost Michigan 20 yards and the Wolverines came up empty.
A couple of big pass plays to back-up tight end Carson Butler helped Michigan get inside the 5, but after Arrington was twice called for not having control of an end zone pass while inbounds, Michigan settled for a 20-yard field goal by Garrett Rivas for a 3-0 lead with about seven minutes left in the first half.
After a Zoltan Mesko punt pinned Iowa inside its own 5 late in the half, Michigan got the ball near midfield with less than 10 seconds to play, but ran out of time.
It was a tight ballgame, a pitchers duel, if you will, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Iowa had its best scoring opportunity of the day early in the third quarter when Henne threw into a crowd and the ball was picked off by the Hawkeyes Mike Humpal at the UM 27. Iowa moved to the 17 before settling on a 34-yard field goal by Kyle Schlichter that made it 3-3.
Here they are, with great field position, and our defense made a big, big stop, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. You can t give them enough credit. Those stops the defense made, they were major.
Steve Breaston found a seam up the center of the field, cut toward the Michigan sideline, and returned the ensuing kickoff 64 yards to the Iowa 35. It took eight plays before Hart burst up the middle from nine yards out for the game s first touchdown and a 10-3 Michigan lead.
Iowa (5-3, 2-3) retaliated quickly by driving 75 yards on Michigan s defense, but the Hawkeyes got bogged down inside the 10 and came away with a 22-yard field goal by Schlichter that made it 10-6 with two minutes left in the third quarter. Michigan opened it back up to 13-6 with a 37-yard Rivas field goal early in the fourth quarter.
Michigan went to Hart more and more, consuming the clock and wearing down Iowa. Hart s touchdown run then settled the outcome and showed Iowa s coach something he already knew.
I felt coming into the game and watching them on tape that he [Hart] is one of the best players in our conference and one of the best players that we have seen, Ferentz said. He is a heck of a football player, and a great competitor.
Contact Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6510.