It is the only period in many of our lives that Iowa Football was ranked first in the nation over a significant period of time, and by now over half of the state has told someone that they were at the Michigan game. Every couple years, Rob Houghtlin's game winning kick is shown on local television in the days before the Michigan game, but most people have not seen the game in its entirety since 1985. After acquiring a tape of the game this spring, I can still say that it is a classic college football game. Games between #1 and #2 have not taken place very many times in the history of college football, and this game was as good as almost any.
Iowa entered the Michigan game with a 5-0 record and only one real previous test against RB Lorenzo White and Michigan State. Not only was the team ranked #1, but most people felt the Hawkeye Offense was the best in the nation. Coach Hayden Fry had taken Iowa to the Rose Bowl and three other bowl games in the previous four years, but he knew the 1985 Hawks were his best group. Although many of Defensive Coordinator Bill Brashier's top players graduated from the 1984 team that just missed winning the Big Ten Championship, returning players QB Chuck Long, RB Ronnie Harmon, and LB Larry Station were among the elite players in the United States. A very good offensive line under Coach Kirk Ferentz, clutch wide receivers like Billy Happel and Scott Halverson, and physical defensive players like Jeff Drost and Hap Peterson rounded out the strengths of the team.
Michigan entered Iowa City with the best defense in the country to go with its 5-0 record. Although he complained publicly about the pink walls in the visiting locker rooms at Kinnick Stadium, Coach Bo Schembechler was really worried about the fact that he had to play against Long, Harmon, and the same Iowa team that dominated Michigan 26-0 the previous year. In the 1970s, Bo owned Iowa and most of the Big Ten besides Ohio State, but once Hayden got the Iowa program going, some of the best games in the Big Ten Conference in the 1980s were between Hayden and Bo. Iowa won two great games in 1981 and 1985 that were decided by a field goal or less, while Michigan returned the favor with close wins in 1983 and 1986. For good measure, the Hawks and Wolverines tied in 1988. Before Coach Fry, the Big Ten was known as the Big Two and the little eight because OSU and UM dominated the conference. Once Fry established his program, Iowa smashed that image as they went to the Rose Bowl three times in nine years.
Statistically, Iowa dominated the 1985 battle between the two heavyweight teams, having the ball for 38 minutes to Michigan's 22, running 84 plays to the Wolverines 41, and gaining 422 yards to Michigan's 182. Despite the statistical gap, UM took a 7-6 lead into the half, thanks to the effort of the Wolverine defense and help from the officials. On third down from the Michigan 18 in the second quarter, Long rolled right away from pressure and connected with Halverson in the back of the end zone. However, an official ruled the catch no good, indicating that Halverson was out of bounds, even though only one foot is needed inbounds in college football. CBS-TV instant replays showed the official ruling to be wrong, but it stood and Iowa settled for a Houghtlin field goal.
Despite several Hawk first downs, there was no scoring in the second half until Houghtlin kicked another field goal to make it 9-7 Iowa early in the fourth quarter. However, Michigan answered with a 40-yard Mike Gillette field goal to take the lead with 10:55 to go in the game. The offensive success the Wolverines had that day was, in part, set up by Iowa kickoff and punting miscues. Those two areas were the biggest weakness on several of Hayden's teams, which is strange considering P Reggie Roby and K Tom Nichol were two of Coach Fry's biggest weapons on the 1981 Big Ten Champs.
After an Iowa possession, the Hawkeye defense shut UM down with 5:27 to play as Station made a great play on 3rd and 2. Iowa received the ball on their own 22, and Long and Harmon took turns moving the Hawks down the field. A key third down pass from Long to TE Mike Flagg and a third down conversion run by FB David Hudson kept the drive going. After moving the ball to the Michigan 12, and using almost all the clock in the process, Iowa stopped the clock with two seconds left on the clock. After Coach Schembechler called another time-out to freeze Houghtlin, Rob calmly nailed a 29-yard kick that sent Kinnick into one of its great celebrations of all time. Not only had #1 beaten #2 in a match-up that does not happen that often in college football, but the level of play and the finish made it one of the great college football games.
Neither team finished the 1985 season as National Champions, although Michigan did end up being #2 that year. Iowa ended up winning the Big Ten and going to the Rose Bowl, but the Rose Bowl loss to UCLA dropped Iowa to 9th in the final poll. In the Michigan victory, Chuck Long threw for 297 yards on 26-39 passing in front of a national audience, and cemented his place as a legit Heisman Trophy contender. In my mind, he was the best player in college football that year, even though Bo Jackson turned into a better pro. Ronnie Harmon caught many Long passes, and became the only player to gain over a 100 yards against the UM defense all year.
Sometimes we forget how good those two truly were!!!