IOWA CITY, Ia. It was one of those moments, one of those plays, that changes the course of a college football game.
In the case of Iowa linebacker Anthony Hitchens, though, it altered more than that.
When Hitchens spun off a block to chase down shifty Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner with a little more than two minutes to go Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, a season seismically shifted.
When the hard-charging Hitchens ripped the ball away and pounced on it to seal a 24-21 victory, it felt like a program correcting course, as well.
It’s difficult to overestimate how important Win No. 7 is for Iowa, a program that finally and officially stiff-armed a four-win stinker of a season in 2012 to the turf. The fact that was Michigan — even an offensively challenged Michigan — was the undeniable bonus.
At 7-4 with a trip to Nebraska in the on-deck circle, Iowa dodged the lingering doubts of mediocrity that creep into the locker rooms of 6-6 teams. Hitchens knocked the ball loose with Michigan threatening at Iowa’s 31-yard line — and something more, something special, became possible.
On the 340th tackle of Hitchens’ career — and the final one for the senior at Kinnick — it seemed like a team’s over-the-hump time had arrived.
Has he had a bigger one?
“No, definitely not,” Hitchens said.
It’s easy to make the argument that Hitchens played one of the best defensive games in Iowa history. Fellow linebacker James Morris, for the record, was close behind.
Hitchens’ eight tackles that tied for a team high felt more like 18, though. His three tackles for loss were the most for anyone in the game and the effort that produced the fumble molded the fates of two teams.
For Hitchens, it was also “when” as much as how many.
The fumble recovery came one play after Hitchens yanked down Fitzgerald Toussaint for a loss — and two plays after bear-hugging Gardner for another loss. The series before, the 6-foot-1, 235-pounder rushed Gardner into a third-down incompletion two plays after combining with James Morris to force the elusive quarterback into a four-yard loss.
It wasn’t a one-play burst of adrenaline for Hitchens. It was a relentless, tireless assault on Michigan’s offensive backfield and psyche.
Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, Hitchens’ roommate, said the football fight is fully engrained in his defensive pal’s DNA.
“He’s a beast,” Fiedorowicz said. “He plays like that every game, to be honest.”
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Iowa defensive lineman Carl Davis, who also wrapped up eight tackles, said it was little surprise that Hitchens would be the person stepping up big in the biggest situation.
“Great players make great plays,” Davis said. “He’s a great player.”
Is it possible that the fifth-leading tackler in the Big Ten is underrated?
“I know people know about him,” Davis said. “I know running backs fear him.”
Quarterbacks like Gardner are smart to tremble a fair share, too.
No one inside the Iowa program easily admits the head-shaking and concern that hovered over the locker room last season, which flamed into a six-loss tailspin. Uncertainty had to hide inside every locker and behind coaching office doors.
There’s no arguing that 6-6 would have been acceptable this season and illustrate progress. Seven wins, however, is a leap in ways that feel much larger than simply one more notch in the win-loss belt.
Suddenly, eight wins or nine enter the thinking. Suddenly, a spot in something like the Gator Bowl seems more possible than the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Suddenly, the script feels more polished — even if it’s not perfect.
“I could, but not much,” said Hitchens, when asked if he could pen a better ending. “Maybe like a 98-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown or something like that.”
Iowa had felt close to turning the corner, with the first whiff coming in a spirited fist-fight with unbeaten Ohio State in Columbus. The Hawkeyes’ four losses have come against teams ranked in the BCS Top 20 with a combined record of 41-3.
The wins, though, had come against teams they should come against — and ditto, with a possible Northern Illinois asterisk, on the losses. Michigan provided a signature win at home.
One linebacker with his foot firmly planted on the accelerator changed a play … and so much more.
Hitchens smiled when asked about how frigid it was at Kinnick, where the 18-degree kickoff set a bone-chilling record.
“It was pretty cold,” he said. “I couldn’t feel my hands.”
Trust us, they were everywhere.
Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football