IOWA CITY — The ball was snapped, the holder slammed it to earth, point-first, and the kicker’s foot came through with a thud. The ball rose up high and through the uprights, and the biggest college football game of the year was decided with :00 showing on the clock.

It was an Iowa foot.

The Hawkeyes won.

And that was the proper ending to this game, as hard as it is to swallow for Michigan fans.

The Wolverines were No. 2 and trying harder. But the Wolverines are still No. 1.

They deserve it.

Was it close? As close as two halves of a peanut butter sandwich. Closer than air. If these teams were twins, they’d be Siamese. If they were of the opposite sexes, they’d be engaged by now.

But Michigan lost, 12-10, and lost seems like an overly harsh word for this game — because its offense sputtered when it most needed to fly, and its brilliant defense, which didn’t surrender a touchdown to the highest-scoring team in the nation, couldn’t keep Iowa out of field goal range

forever.

YOU CAN CALL any series of downs in a football game “crucial.” But in a contest like this, which was beautiful from start to finish in its balance, you watch the fourth quarter. And there, when Michigan took possession with 7:38 remaining, was the one slip on the thin ice that cost the Wolverines the game.

Michigan’s offense has always been a defensive weapon in how it controls the ball and keeps the opposing offense off the field. Lately, Michigan has been passing more than is traditional, which has turned its offense into an even more potent weapon.

But on that particular series of fourth-quarter downs, the Wolverines reverted to a familiar battle cry. Run right, run left, run right. The last attempt was stopped by Iowa for a two- yard loss, and the Wolverines had to punt the ball, which five minutes and 27 seconds later would go sailing through the uprights with the No. 1 ranking.

“Our offense failed to control the ball,” coach Bo Schembechler said, “and with Chuck Long and Ronnie Harmon on the same team, it’s extremely difficult to shut them down.

“We can and we did keep ’em out of the end zone. But you can’t shut them down.”

No, you can’t. Give the Hawkeyes credit. They played beautifully. Long passes through defenses like a hot knife through butter, and Harmon turns three-yard gains into 13 yards, five-yard gains into 20.

IN THEIR final drive — which must have had every human being and half the corn stalks in this state holding their breath — the Hawkeyes converted no fewer than three essential third-down plays, none shorter than five yards.

“The greatest thing I could do was grab Chuck by the shirt and tell him to do his thing,” said Iowa coach Hayden Fry. “That’s exactly what he did.”

And the foot of placekicker Rob Houghtlin — who had missed a 44-yard attempt earlier in the fourth quarter — did the rest.

Of course, depending on whom you ask, the score of this game was 12-10 or 16-10. Those who say the latter will be dressed in yellow, have a big “I” on all their clothing, and know a lot about the corn crop. They are Iowans.

“We wuz almost robbed,” they will scream. Actually, people from Brooklyn scream that. Iowans probably scream something a little less grimy, like, “Gee

whiz, ref, no fair!”

But the point is the same. On a third-and-12 play in the second quarter, Long threw a seeing-eye pass to receiver Scott Helverson, who made a diving catch in the far lip of the end zone. An official ruled he was out of bounds. The camera replays seemed to indicate otherwise.

The Hawkeyes settled for a field goal, and had they lost, you can bet that official would have needed a police escort out.

But they didn’t. That’s just one other reason the results here are just.

Still, how can you complain about a game like this? How much closer can it get? A kick. Two points. How far is that? About the distance between No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation, I guess.

“I think I’ll even vote us No. 1 tomorrow,” Fry said. He should not feel guilty.

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