By SCOTT JACKSON
Courier sports writer
---- — IOWA CITY — It wasn’t going to be the same old story. Not today.
Not on Senior Day. Not if those very same Hawkeye football seniors had anything to say about it.
Senior Mike Meyer kicked a go-ahead 34 yard field goal with 4:54 left to go in regulation, giving Iowa its only lead of the day against Michigan. That lead would hold up when senior linebacker Anthony Hitchens stripped and recovered the football that was lost by Wolverine quarterback Devin Gardner in Hawkeye territory.
Senior tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, who caught Iowa’s first touchdown of the game on Saturday, hauled in a game-clinching 12-yard pass to get the final first down the Hawkeyes would need in their final game of 2013 at Kinnick Stadium. All told, 16 seniors went out smiling as several thousand bundled-up fans of the Black and Gold as Iowa scored 17 unanswered second half points to pull out a 24-21 come-from-behind win.
Iowa's seventh win was gratifying for a number of reasons. After allowing Gardner, a versatile signal caller who can beat teams with his arm and with his legs, to produce six touchdowns last year in a 42-17 embarrassment for the Hawkeyes, Gardner was held in check most of the day by a veteran defensive unit.
Gardner finished throwing for just 98 yards on 13-28 passing and netted only 12 more yards running the football. Even when Gardner appeared to have made a big play with his legs, running into potential game-tying field goal range late in the fourth quarter, the Michigan quarterback made a mistake by carrying the ball in his right hand heading for the left sidelines.
That opening was all Hitchens needed. On his final play ever inside Kinnick Stadium as a Hawkeye, the Iowa senior linebacker grabbed the ball just before Gardner could step out of bounds and pulled it free before recovering it on the turf also just before it went out.
“The game can be funny sometimes. You never know how that ball is going to bounce,” Hitchens, who joined fellow senior linebacker James Morris and Carl Davis with a team-best eight tackles. “That ball easily could have gone out of bounds and (Michigan) would have kept it. Thank goodness it didn’t.”
Iowa (7-4, 4-3) overcame several of its own mistakes to earn the dramatic win. Hawkeye quarterback Jake Rudock threw three interceptions, including his first pass that was picked off by Brennen Bayer for a seven-yard touchdown return, as Iowa lost four turnovers and missed scoring on two field goal tries in the first half by Meyer.
Those miscues played a large part in Iowa trailing at halftime 21-7 to the Wolverines.
“We made it hard on ourselves,” Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Any time you turn it over a couple of times, which we did, give them a short field, which we did, that really made it tough.
“So we were doing some good things, but not enough.”
It took only 85 seconds of second half play for the Hawkeyes to make one very good thing happen. Tevaun Smith took a pass over the middle from Rudock, made two defenders miss, and took it the rest of the way by outrunning three more Wolverines that were in hot pursuit on a electrifying 55-yard catch and run for one of the two touchdowns Iowa needed to catch Michigan on the scoreboard.
Despite another Rudock interception with Iowa on the move in the third quarter, the Hawkeye defense would not allow the Wolverines to go anywhere with the football after the half. Iowa held Michigan to just 45 total yards of offense in the second half, including just nine yards rushing with most coming on Gardner’s run on what would be Michigan’s final offensive play of the day.
Iowa responded after its fourth turnover by going on a nine-play, 60-yard drive that included a fourth-down conversion on the Michigan 24. Rudock followed the first down run by Weisman by connecting on a screen pass to Adam Cox inside the Michigan 10, setting the stage for a tough run by Weisman from nine yards out into the end zone to tie the game at 21-21 with 12:11 to go.
“I think our whole team grew in the second half today,” Ferentz said. “I don’t want to say we were embarrassed, but I think we knew we could play better offensively certainly in the second half.”
Another three-and-out stop by the Hawkeye defense set the stage for a nine-play, 50-yard drive by Rudock and the Iowa offense. After bogging down inside the red zone, the third time was the charm for Meyer who overcame a 37-yard miss and a bobbled hold on a 38-yard try in the first half to connect on the tiebreaking 34-yard field goal.
“We’ve missed a few field goals historically from where (Meyer) kicked that last one, and we’ve had some bad moments on that right hash in there tight,” Ferentz said. “He nailed it when we needed it. So really I never had a doubt. Mike’s such a tremendous guy. (I’m) So really happy for him.”
Michigan still had time to drive for the potential tying field goal or even a game-winning touchdown, which Gardner appeared to be guiding the Wolverines to after an 18-yard pass to Jeremy Jackson and a 13-yard screen pass to Fitzgerald Toussaint. On second down from Iowa’s 39, Gardner got some room to run to the left and appeared on his way out easily at the 30 to set up a big third down.
Gardner, however, left the ball exposed for Hitchens who instinctively ripped it out and fell on it to give Michigan its first turnover at a very opportune time.
Weisman carried the first play for 22 yards to burn one Michigan timeout, but Iowa still had 1:56 left to run out and needed one more first down after the Wolverines allowed no yards and used their final two timeouts to set up a third-and-10. Rudock, as he did on his five-yard touchdown to Fiedorowicz, rolled out of the pocket and found the all-conference tight end on a critical play.
The catch by Fiedorowicz sealed Iowa’s comeback on Saturday in a game that continues a late-season surge by the Hawkeyes with four wins in their last five games.
“We felt like it was a pretty safe play, first and foremost,” Ferentz said. “I was going back and forth on the phones with the defense and offense. By the time I got to those guys, that was one of the things I asked them ‘what are we thinking on third down, if we get to it?’ I don’t want to say it was a riskless play, but really (it was) well executed and (a) big, big play.”
The loss leaves both Michigan and Iowa at 7-4 overall, but the Hawkeyes move ahead of the Wolverines in the Big Ten standings with Iowa at 4-3 while Michigan falls to 3-4 in the conference. That could prove to be huge for postseason play as Iowa heads to Nebraska for the "Heroes Game" Friday morning at 11 a.m.
A win could move the Hawkeyes up the pecking order in the Big Ten’s bowl selection process, meaning a return to a New Year’s Day bowl in Florida could be just one more win away.
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