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Indianapolis native shines despite 26-0 shutout in 2023 Big Ten Championship game

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A record-breaking 67,842 fans were in attendance to witness the undefeated University of Michigan Wolverines (12-0) take on the University of Iowa Hawkeyes (10-2) at Lucas Oil Stadium in Downtown Indianapolis Dec. 2. The Wolverines shut down the Hawkeyes with a score 26-0, securing the 2023 Big Ten Conference Championship.

The last time the Hawkeyes and Wolverines met on the big stage was in 2021, with the Wolverines shredding the Hawkeyes 42-3.

The win marks a third consecutive conference title behind University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines. Despite the controversy surrounding a recent three-game suspension for violating the league’s sportsmanship policy causing him to miss the final three games of the regular season, Harbaugh has led his unit to an undefeated record.

football coach during the 2023 Big Ten Championship Game.
University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh during the Big Ten Championship game against the University of Iowa Hawkeyes at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis, IN. On December 2, 2023. (Photo/Walt Thomas)

“It was an incredible performance, and we’re just going to enjoy this one,” Harbaugh said. “We’re going to enjoy this one for a few days. The team will have a week off, but our mind will get on a one-track mind to move on to the playoffs and find out who we’re going to play. Then, the team still has more goals to accomplish.”

Aside from the shutout in the Big Ten Championship Game, the Wolverines steamrolled household football programs, including lopsided wins over Nebraska (45-7), Purdue (41-13), Minnesota (52-10) and Indiana (52-7). Harbaugh’s suspension caused him to miss the final game of the season against football powerhouse Ohio State.

University of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz entered the contest with his own set of accolades, securing the Big Ten West Division title in three seasons as of recent (2015, 2021 and 2023).

Ferentz spoke about his tenure at the University of Iowa in the post-game press conference. “Somebody pointed out to me it was 25 years ago when I started in this position, and I feel very fortunate about that,” Ferentz said. “During that time, we’ve had a lot of really good teams, and I’ve had the privilege to work with a lot of outstanding players. A lot of those guys were here tonight actually, so appreciate that.”

One of those guys who is the heart of Iowa’s S-tier defense is linebacker and Indianapolis native Jay Higgins. A product of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, the six-foot-two Higgins amassed an impressive 141 tackles, which is the most by any player in the Big Ten Conference this season.

Defensive football player closing in on offensive football player during the 2023 Big Ten Championship football game.
University of Iowa linebacker Jay Higgins (34) brings the pressure against University of Michigan quarterback Jonathan James ‘J.J.’ McCarthy (9) during their Big Ten Championship Game matchup at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis, IN. on December 2, 2023. (Photo/Walt Thomas)

Following the contest, Higgins spoke of the Hawkeyes’ rigid defense. “Yeah, [I’m] definitely proud of our defense,” Higgins said. “You know, it’s up to us to put the fire out. We practiced that sudden change. We trained for that all year.”

Higgins said the team anticipated holding the Wolverines to three points in the championship game, which was ultimately unsuccessful. “We were definitely expecting to hold those guys to a field goal,” Higgins said. “That’s really what we were trying to do.”

The defense of the Hawkeyes has been stellar all season, toting the fourth-best defense in the nation. Under the helm of defensive coordinator Phil Parker, Iowa allowed just over a dozen points per contest (12.2).

Higgins took his hat off to his coaches following the loss to Michigan. “I would definitely say just we understood how big this game was, and obviously Coach Parker, Coach Wallace prepared us,” Higgins said.

Higgins lived up to his defensive prowess early in the championship battle, racking up a team-leading 5 tackles of the team’s 14 tackles in the first quarter against the Wolverines.

Despite this, the Hawkeyes were not able to contain the Wolverines in the first quarter, trailing 10-0. An 82-yard punt return by Wolverines’ return man Semaj Morgan became the longest punt return in the history of the Big Ten Championship game.

Football players taking the field before the start of the 2023 Big Ten Championship Football Game.
University of Iowa Hawkeyes football team takes the field at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis, IN during the 2023 Big Ten Championship Football Game the University of Michigan Wolverines on December 2, 2023. (Photo/Walt Thomas)

Wolverine defensive back Mike Sainristil was named the Grange-Griffin Most Valuable Player of the 2023 Big Ten Football Championship Game. Sainristil became the second defensive player to earn the award in the game’s 13-year tenure. Coincidentally, the first defense player to win the award was University of Michigan alumni Aiden Hutchinson in 2021 against the University of Iowa.

Following the game, Sainristil spoke about the feeling of winning and being named MVP. “It just feels great. Guys like me and Blake [Corum], this is what we came back for, to have success with this team,” Sainristil said. “Like the brotherhood that this team has is one that I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world, and this team is going down in history.”

Although the Hawkeyes were not crowned this year’s Big Ten Conference Champion, Higgins expressed how proud he was of the team’s performance.

“I just feel like my teammates went out there and they competed. That’s all I can ask for,” Higgins said. “I mean, guys who were making plays when we needed them. You have to show up in big moments. I’m really proud of my defense.”

Higgins received at least one vote for MVP of the championship game.

The Big Ten Championship Football Game Trophy.
A closeup of the 2023 Big Ten Championship trophy that will be rewarded to the winner of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes and University of Michigan Wolverines matchup on December 2, 2023 at Lucas Oil Stadium located in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo/Walt Thomas)

The University of Michigan’s next game is against the University of Alabama in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, Jan. 1 at 5 p.m.

The University of Iowa Hawkeyes will take on the University of Tennessee Volunteers in the Cheez-it Citrus Bowl at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida, Jan. 2 at 1 p.m.

The 2024 Big Ten Championship is set for Dec. 7, 2024, at Lucas Oil Stadium. For more information, click here.

Contact multi-media journalist Noral Parham III at 317-762-7846 or via email at noralp@indyrecorder.com. Follow him on Twitter @3Noral. For more sports news courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder, click here.

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