The 1985 Iowa Hawkeyes came into the college football season with high expectations. Head coach Hayden Fry had led the team to a strong 7-4-1 record, capped off with a 55-19 devastation of Texas in the Freedom Bowl. They finished the year ranked #16 in the polls and brought back quarterback Chuck Long to lead what they hoped would be the school’s second Rose Bowl appearance in five years.
Bo Schembecler was used to the burden of expectations at Michigan, but 1985 wasn’t one of the years. The Wolverines had gone through a tough 6-5 season in ’84 and ended with a Holiday Bowl loss to BYU. By a strange set of circumstances, that game had been a national championship battle, at least for the Cougars. They were undefeated, ranked #1 and contractually committed to the Holiday, a low-payout bowl that no viable national contender would consider. Schembecler took his team, put up a noble fight and lost 24-17. They came into ’85 unheralded and unranked.
Michigan got an early chance to show how far they had come. Their September schedule featured three straight games against Top 20 opponents—whether you love or hate the late Schembecler, the man never ducked non-conference competition. They beat Notre Dame, in the final year of the Gerry Faust era, then knocked off South Carolina and Maryland. By the time the Wolverines were done, they ranked in the Top 10.
Iowa’s schedule wasn’t nearly as stringent, as they beat Drake, Northern Illinois—a program a long way from the Orange Bowl team they are at this writing twenty-seven years later—and Iowa State. The Hawkeyes, having opened the season at #5, moved to #1 in the country.
Both the Hawkeyes and Wolverines won their first two conference games, although Iowa needed a narrow escape against bowl-bound Michigan State. The 35-31 win featured not only the conference’s best quarterback in Long, but its best running back in Michigan State’s Lorenzo White. Iowa followed it up with an uninspiring 23-13 win over a subpar Wisconsin team. Michigan played the same teams and was considerably more impressive, winning by a combined score of 64-6.
Between superior play against common opponents and a tougher non-conference schedule, Michigan had the more impressive resume when October 12 rolled around. They had moved up to #2 and were on their way to Kinnick Stadium in Iowa, with the Hawkeyes fired up to play the biggest game in school history.
Iowa had the skill position talent, starting with Long and extending to running back Ronnie Harmon, a threat both running and receiving who would go on to a productive NFL career in San Diego. Other key players included Mike Haight on the offensive line, Devon Mitchell in the secondary and Larry Station at linebacker.
Michigan’s calling card was its defense, a unit as good as any in the country. The cornerstone was All-American defensive tackle Mike Hammerstein, the kid with a name made for a defensive lineman. He was joined up front by Mark Messner. At the second level of defense were the sons of coaches—linebacker Mike Mallory was the son of Indiana coach Bill Mallory and Andy Moeller’s father was an assistant on the Wolverine staff and future successor to Schembecler. Then you had All-American Brad Cochran and talented corner Garland Rivers in the secondary. Michigan was a tough team to move the ball on and had no discernible weaknesses.
The first quarter passed scoreless, and then Iowa appeared to have struck first in the second period. Long hit Scott Helverson in the back of the end zone. He was ruled out of bounds, though replays said otherwise. In the age before instant replay it meant the Hawkeyes settled for a Rob Houghtlin field goal.
With the hype going to Long and the talented Michigan defense, it was easy to overlook the Wolverine quarterback. From the perspective of history it seems a little silly—Jim Harbaugh’s career as an NFL quarterback, college coach and NFL coach would eclipse anyone else on the field today. But in October 1985 he was more of a game manager surrounded who needed other playmakers to step up. One of those was return man Tom Wilcher who brought the kickoff following Houghtlin’s field goal back sixty yards and set up a Michigan touchdown.
Houghtlin booted two more field goals, including one early in the fourth quarter for a 9-7 lead. Iowa was controlling the flow of play. Long was on his way to 338 yards passing and Iowa to 38 minutes of possession time, but when you keep settling for field goals, it allows an opponent to hang around. And when your special teams are making mistakes, it sets you up to get beat. Another long kickoff return set up Michigan with a field goal that made it 10-9 with five minutes to play.
It was now up to Long to prove he was Heisman-worthy and that his team could win a national championship. He methodically moved the Hawkeyes down the field, including three clutch third-down conversions. With time for one play, the ball rested on the Michigan 12-yard line. Houghtlin was called on one more time and his 29-yard-field goal sent the state of Iowa into a state of pandemonium.
Iowa’s national title bid would end two weeks later, as they slopped around in the rain at Ohio State in a 22-13 loss. But that was the only stumble. Iowa also hammered a decent Illinois team 59-0, edged Purdue 27-24 and beat Minnesota 31-9, finishing the season 10-1 and earning the Rose Bowl nod. Long finished second in the Heisman race, in an extremely close vote to Auburn’s Bo Jackson. Michigan played Illinois to a tie, but otherwise won out, including blowouts of Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota and capped off with a 27-17 win over Ohio State. The Wolverines got a Fiesta Bowl bid to play Nebraska.
Michigan capped their season in style, beating the Cornhuskers and finishing #2 in the final polls. Iowa had a disappointing Rose Bowl, as Harmon fumbled four times and they lost 45-28 to UCLA. But on one made-for-football October Saturday, Iowa and Michigan played a game to settle the Big Ten title and give college football one of its memorable moments of 1985.