Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley was pressured consistently and sacked eight times in a 10-3 loss to the Wolverines. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When Michael Sleep-Dalton lined up to punt from Michigan's 39-yard line early in the fourth quarter, he gave it a nice boot. It bounced around the 3-yard line, but the ball bounded out of the reach of several Hawkeyes and into the end zone for a touchback.
A 19-yard net punt.
It was just one example of many little things that went wrong for the 14th-ranked Hawkeyes on Saturday, the things that were ultimately costly in a 10-3 defeat before a throng of 111,519 fans at Michigan Stadium.
Iowa lost the turnover battle for the first time in more than a calendar year (spanning 14 games), going minus-3.
Iowa rushed for one yard. One.
Alaric Jackson's return didn't help overall pass protection, as the Hawkeyes surrendered eight sacks totaling 65 critical lost yards to the No. 18 Wolverines.
Even after driving to the Michigan 25 late in the fourth quarter, one of the least-penalized teams in the country committed back-to-back flags for holding, then a false start to derail a golden chance to steal one. Soon, it was fourth-and-36.
It was just a bad, undisciplined, ineffective day for Iowa against a beatable Michigan team.
“I feel like we beat ourselves," said wide receiver Nico Ragaini, who led Iowa (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) with six catches. "We kept making mistakes.”
Iowa came into Saturday averaging just 26 yards of penalties a game; against Michigan, eight were accepted (for 60 yards) and several others were declined.
"We wanted to get out and start fast and stay on it," receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said. "We had some setbacks today. When we were out there, we could’ve done a lot more."
The Hawkeyes' loss leaves them reeling and needing to answer next week against a Penn State team that dominated Purdue 35-7.
Iowa’s streak of 19 consecutive quarters with points ended in train-wreck fashion.
The Hawkeyes turned the ball over on their first play from scrimmage. Two punts by Sleep-Dalton that netted an average of 20 yards each punctuated the second and third drives with a thud. Nate Stanley’s first interception since the Outback Bowl halted a fourth drive.
It was a first-quarter football disaster in Ann Arbor for a team that had been humming, fresh off a Kirk Ferentz-era offensive record (644 yards) against Middle Tennessee State.
The fumble by Mekhi Sargent was uncharacteristic but obviously very damaging (it led to three Michigan points), as was Stanley’s interception to Josh Metellus that was tossed into double coverage. That mistake came just two plays after a pick by Iowa’s Geno Stone.
Game plans often revolve around a productive beginning, and Iowa’s was tossed into quick disarray.
“We didn’t help ourselves with some costly errors in the first half," Ferentz said. "That made the hill a little higher to climb. You’ve got to give our opponent credit on that. We knew coming into the game we needed to basically execute on every play. Came up short in that regard."
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz reacts to a 10-3 loss at Michigan. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
Yet ... give the defense a gold star.
Chauncey Golston, A.J. Epenesa, Geno Stone and their friends played great, keeping the Hawkeyes within reach for 60 minutes. But it was the only phase that repeatedly delivered in the biggest game of the season to date.
“We did our daily disciplines, stopping the run," said Stone, who registered four tackles but seemed like he was everywhere when Iowa needed him. "We gave up one big play; besides that, we stopped the run really well and played Iowa defense."
Michigan averaged 3.6 yards a carry and only 4.5 per play. Those should've been winning numbers for Iowa.
"As disappointing as it was, as many plays with all the negative yardage," Ferentz said, "… all that being said, we’re 59 minutes into the game with a chance to tie it and possibly go ahead."
Iowa's points per game allowed inched up, from 8.5 to 8.8, but it was a banner day for the defense. And should've been a winning one. Saturday marked the fewest points Iowa as allowed in a loss since Sept. 8, 2012, in a 9-6 setback to Iowa State.
Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa recorded a sack vs. Michigan QB. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
Epenesa finally got some one-on-one battles and made Michigan pay.
Sure, the phenom junior defensive end got his share of double-teams, as usual. But not always. And Epenesa not only got home for one sack of Shea Patterson, he was regularly in the Wolverines' backfield.
Considering he had been frustrated with the lack of high sack totals as a reward (just one coming into the game), Epenesa took personal satisfaction from his performance.
"I was given an opportunity of some one-on-ones today, and I had a bit more success than usual," Epenesa said. "Obviously, whenever someone gives me one-on-ones, my goal is to make them pay. I felt like I had a lot of pressure today."
He even got props from the opposing quarterback.
"I knew Patterson could feel me," Epenesa said. "He was telling me, he could feel me coming. ‘Why are you so big and so fast?’ He obviously acknowledged I was there. That’s uplifting for me, I guess, because I’m having an impact. It’s a step in the right direction.”
Stanley continues to be at his best on third-and-22.
Of Iowa’s 129 hard-fought yards in the opening half, more than a quarter came on one heave down the right sideline to Brandon Smith, the star high jumper in high school. Smith went up and grabbed a throw with Lavert Hill in coverage.
Iowa was facing third-and-22 from its own 8-yard line, right after Stanley was sacked for a loss of seven and Iowa took a delay of game that had the Big House roaring. Smith’s catch not only silenced the crowd, but it also stemmed the tide and kept the offense on the field and the defense off it. The Hawkeyes drove to Michigan’s 30 before stalling, and the teams went to the locker room in a 10-3 game. Without that play, the halftime predicament could’ve been much, much worse.
Of course, it was Stanley’s dart of a toss on third-and-22 to Smith-Marsette for 27 yards at Iowa State that changed the tenor of that game, which Iowa ultimately won 18-17.
But Saturday's third-and-22 miracle was no ultimate harbinger of a gritty victory this time around.
Credit Ragaini for a strong day of punt returns.
I've been tough on him for letting the football roll too often, but after a similar hiccup on the first Wolverines punt of the day, Ragaini was excellent. He logged four returns for 54 yards, helping lift an Iowa offense that needed all the help it could get.
"I made a mistake on the first one. I feel like I could’ve come up and fielded it. But I came up and got every single ball after that," Ragaini said. "I just want to continue the little roll I’m on with punt returns and just keep getting better."
I asked Stanley how his body felt after absorbing eight sacks. "Fine," he said.
The injury report Saturday didn't seem too bad. Right guard Cole Banwart left with a leg injury and was replaced by Levi Paulsen. Safety Kaevon Merriweather was available but did not play, according to participation reports. Cornerback Julius Brents returned from a knee injury for his first action of the season, all on special teams.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.