You could have heard a pin drop outside of the Iowa locker room Saturday afternoon. The players filed into the post game press conference looking like a children who just had been told Christmas was called off this year.
Iowa likely missed a chance at spending another New Year's Day in Florida with a crushing 23-20 loss to visiting Michigan. Another Top 10 finish and Big Ten title in all probability escaped helplessly into the crisp autumn air.
"It's going to be hard to swallow this one," Iowa Center Brian Ferentz said. "Maybe it's better that we have a week off to regroup, circle the wagons and then go down the home stretch."
The Hawkeyes head into their bye needing to lick their wounds. They better hope they heal quickly because the ‘Cats from Evanston are slashing through opponents.
The media posed many questions in the press conference that gave the Iowa players an easy out. They could have blamed the refs for several questionable calls that sent the Hawkeyes into a first-half tizzy and caused Head Coach Kirk Ferentz to go berserk.
To their credit, they took it like men. No blaming others. The fingers were pointed directly at themselves.
"I knew someone was going to ask what we thought about the refs," Hawkeye Defensive End Bryan Mattison said. "You can't really come down on the refs. The game should never be decided by a ref. If it is, it's the team's fault. There is no way you can ever blame a loss or a win on a ref. That's the way it goes."
Sure, the pass interference calls felt like a stake through the heart as they were happening. But they didn't decide the game. Iowa left too many plays on the field that could have swung the result in its favor. You can't believe that all 11 penalties resulted from bad referee judgment.
In addition, the referees didn't cause Clinton Solomon to drop a pass that ricocheted off his facemask into the arms of a waiting Michigan defender. The officials had nothing to do with Andy Fenstermaker averaging 28.2 yards on six punts or Drew Tate fumbling a snap, missing receivers or receivers dropping his passes. They didn't cause Kyle Schlicher's field goal to be tipped, and they most certainly didn't allow Steve Breaston to race 52 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.
"It was a loss of concentration," Solomon said of his lapse. "You throw that ball to me 12,000 more times, I guarantee that I wouldn't drop that ball. It was just one of those times where I had my hands up ready to catch the ball. I wanted to make a play, but I've got to catch the ball first. It was a loss of concentration. It was one that got away from me."
The Solomon gaffe resulted in a Michigan field goal. Had he caught the pass, the Hawkeyes would have been in the opposition's territory.
The Wolverines scored three points off of one Iowa turnover. The home time failed to turn either of its takeaways into points even though both of those drives started in the visitors' real estate.
And, forget the statistics. Please, forget the statistics. And please, please, please, do not say that Iowa outplayed Michigan. The team that makes the plays it takes to win outplays its opponent.
"We're not really into stats," said Iowa Tight End Scott Chandler, who had a fine day with eight receptions for 90 yards. "I think if you look at the scoreboard today, we were ahead in most of the statistical categories. We weren't in the points' category. That's the one we worry about the most."
With Iowa clinging to a 14-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter, Michigan needed a play. Breaston delivered by hauling in a screen pass and taking it 52 yards to the house. His teammates blocked well, but Iowa Strong Safety Miguel Merrick took a poor angle in his pursuit, helping spring the talented Wolverine receiver.
"He didn't surprise me with a burst," Merrick said. "I knew watching film that he was a fast guy, and he had a great burst. I just missed the tackle. That's a real simple play. That's a play as safety…that's just a play you've got to make. I made a bad play, and he made a great play. He capitalized. There's nothing else that I can say, you know?"
Said Iowa Cornerback Jovon Johnson: "It's hard because we played a full 60 minutes plus. We had the emotion. We had the tempo. We had the game in our hands. We had them right where we wanted them going into the fourth quarter. They made a play. One play changed the game. There's nothing else you can do about it."
The saddest part about Iowa's 5-3 record is that in two its three losses, you felt like the Hawkeyes left plays on the field. They also were crippled by extremely costly penalties and turnovers at Iowa State.
Iowa was called for a season-high 11 penalties resulting in 94 yards lost on Saturday Want to guess the previous high? Yup, the Hawkeyes drew six flags for 42 yards against the Cyclones.
At least Iowa's defensive improvement against a talented Wolverine offense looked encouraging. Well, again, it didn't make the plays when it had to.
In addition to the Breaston TD, Michigan exposed a mismatch during its overtime possession. After a two-yard run on its opening play, the Wolverines found linebacker Ed Miles covering slot receiver Jason Avant. Free safety Marcus Paschal was late arriving to help on the crossing route, the visitors ended up with an 18-yard play to the Hawkeye 5, and two plays later Jerome Jackson crossed the goal line for the winning score.
"We played pretty well, but I don't think you're happy with your performance when you lose," said Merrick, who also intercepted a pass Saturday. "It doesn't even matter if you play good. We could have played excellent. But when you lose, you lose. The offense loses. The special teams loses. Everybody loses. We might as well have played horrible because we lost."
Iowa missed a chance to hit Michigan in the gut with the opening possession of overtime. On a third and 6, Tate threw wide of an open Solomon at the Wolverine 2. A touchdown there might have changed the outcome.
"Going into the coin toss for overtime, we felt like we had taken control of the ballgame," Brian Ferentz said. "The offense, we didn't get the job done in overtime. It's a coin toss. It's the luck of the draw. Our number was called, and I don't think we responded. If you're starting the overtime period, you need to go down and score (a touchdown). You need to put the pressure on the other team."
We've become accustomed to the Hawkeyes making the plays at this time of year. They had won 22 of 24 games in the months of October and November since 2002 and 22 in a row at Kinnick coming into Saturday's game. They often prevailed with discipline and concentration, two things absent in this loss.
"Every penalty against Michigan or any great team it's going to always hurt," Solomon said. "Penalties, turnovers, we cannot have mistakes. Our team is not that good to make mistakes like that. Mistakes killed us. We have to learn from it and move on. We have to get more disciplined on certain things and go back to our fundamentals."
It's certainly not time to throw in the towel. Iowa can make noise with three games left in the Big Ten season and a likely bowl game. But it just makes you want to pull your hair out thinking about what might have been.
"Any loss is hard to handle," Merrick said. "We had our chances. We just didn't take advantage of them. They did. I'm not saying that they're not a good team, but we had our chances. Any time you have your chances against a good team like that, you've got to make the most of them."