Sunday, December 6, 2015

Spartans and Hawkeyes

For hours, neither the Iowa Hawkeyes or Michigan State Spartans could score a touchdown in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. Twitter, ever-snarky, produced tweet after tweet saying this was a “typical game” for the supposedly offensively blunted Big Ten.

But even then it was riveting theater, as the teams traded field goals. Everything was on the line, a conference championship, a berth in the College Football Playoff, seasons for the ages for two proud programs.

Michigan State is a bruising, blue collar program that beat rival Michigan on a miracle play and then muscled past Ohio State to the top of the heap. Iowa’s schedule had been widely criticized as soft, but they had won every game by not beating themselves and competing relentlessly. Now they were proving themselves against an elite team.

Iowa led 6-3 at the half after a long Spartan field goal hammered off the crossbar, sending a booming sound throughout the stadium.

Michigan State kicked its way in front with two third quarter field goals, taking a 9-6 advantage into the final quarter. The game to this point had been gripping, but that had just set the table.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard heaved a deep pass, which cut through the air and into the hands of Hawkeye receiver Tevaun Smith, who raced free down the field for a stunning 85-yard touchdown. Watching the game in Columbia, Mo., I all but heard the roars from the delirious state to the north. 13-9 Hawkeyes.

The teams traded punts one more time, for old time’s sake.

Then Michigan State began a drive at its own 18 with 9:31 to go.

The Spartans converted a third down with a Connor Cook pass, and they were on the move. Slowly. Another third down, running back L.J. Scott got four yards when he needed three.

A replay review turned a catch into an incompletion, forcing a third third down situation, this one at the 50. Cook fired a pass to Aaron Burbridge, the receiver who had just had a catch taken away. Burbridge caught it and hung on despite a punishing hit from an Iowa defender.

First down Michigan State at the Iowa 34. The Iowa defense dug deep. The defense had been sound all year, but this second half had been a grinding test at the edge of a cliff. In the second half, Iowa would run no plays in Michigan State territory. However, the Spartans would run 30 plays in Iowa territory in that second half.

The Iowa defense was a chef preparing a world-class meal in a kitchen that was on fire. Still, they kept dishing out punishing hits, following their assignments, making the tackles.

Following the Burbridge catch, Michigan State began hammering away, running it 12 straight times, some by Cook but mostly L.J. Scott. The minutes slowly faded away. Everything was on edge.
Cook for seven yards. Scott for three yards. Scott for three yards. Scott for six yards. Scott for two yards on 3rd-and-1. Scott for three yards to the Iowa 10.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, resolute in his team keeping the Spartans out of the end zone, nevertheless began calling timeouts to preserve time for a rebuttal, always covering his bases just in case. He hammered away at the gum in his mouth, as he had all game. Whether it was to calm nerves or simply an outlet for intensity, his jaw churned endlessly.

Scott for five yards. Scott for no gain on third down. 4th-and-2 at the Iowa 5. Everything on the line. The tension was unbelievable.

After Iowa’s third and final timeout, Cook ran it on an option keeper on fourth down. Right at the line to gain an Iowa defender smashed into him. Cook was driven to the turf right at the line. The refs measured... first down. After 19 plays, the drive was still on. Less than two minutes to go.

First and goal from the Iowa 3. The Hawkeyes, winners all year, were in a dire spot. Some sportswriters on Twitter said Iowa should maybe let Michigan State score so they could have time to respond. But Iowa’s offense had mostly struggled in the second half against the steel Spartan defense, and Kirk Ferentz and his Iowa Hawkeyes weren’t going to simply let any opponent in. They would have to earn it. The game would be decided here and now.

Ferentz looked out at his gallant, probably exhausted defense, like a father looking at his sons. His face was etched with reminders of the effort big-time college coaches pour into their craft. He kept pounding the gum. Making eye contact with his team, he made fists with both hands and lightly shook them at his sides. It was the understated, Midwestern way of standing on box and shouting through a megaphone to leave it all on the field.

On the other sideline, Spartan coach Mark Dantonio stared at the action. He had built and built and built Michigan State. Despite his stern exterior, he is a man capable of transformative smiles. But not now. His face was also etched with hard lines, his stare carrying a ferocity. He seemed unblinking.

First and goal. Scott, on his 12th carry of the drive, slammed ahead with all the force and fury he had. The Iowa defense stopped him just short of the goal line, after a gain of two yards.

Second and goal. Scott, on his 13th carry of the drive, slammed ahead with all the force and fury he had. The Iowa defense stopped him just short of the goal line. Less than a minute to go.

Third and goal. Scott, on his 14th carry of the drive, slammed ahead with all the force and fury he had. The Iowa defense stopped him just short of the goal line.

But not quite. After the initial stuff, Scott, kept surging forward, sliding off one, two, three, four would-be tacklers, finally in desperation sticking the ball where he could not get his body, across the line into the end zone.

Touchdown.

The Michigan State fans erupted. There were no longer seats, rows and aisles, just one jubilant, tumultuous mass of green and white and noise.

It was a drive for the ages. 22 plays, nine minutes, touchdown for a 16-13 lead with the season and the conference title and the playoff hanging in the balance, against a defense making a courageous stand.

Iowa’s final frantic effort with the remaining 27 seconds didn’t go very far. The Spartans had won.

Whether it mattered to the Hawkeyes or not, they finally had widespread national respect, having gone down to the wire against one of the nation’s best teams. As the Iowa players gathering in the corner of the field to jog to the locker room together, the Iowa fans stood and cheered and applauded, on and on, thanking their players for the remarkable season.

Michigan State was moving on to the College Football Playoff, and Iowa to the Rose Bowl. Both teams, and the Big Ten in general, had put on a show, a battle of wills, college football at its finest. In the end, it was anything but a typical game.