INDIANAPOLIS — Desmond King wrapped his arms around LJ Scott’s waist.
Cole Fisher tried to hang onto the Michigan State running back’s chest.
Melvin Spears darted across the green-painted end zone and took a shot knocking the football out of Scott’s hands.
In the end, the 233-pound bulldozing Spartan freshman – and Iowa’s Big Ten and national title dreams – slipped through Hawkeye hands Saturday night.
Scott punctuated a 22-play, 82-yard touchdown drive by stretching the football across the Lucas Oil Stadium goal-line with 27 seconds left to give fifth-ranked Michigan State a 16-13 victory over the No. 4 Hawkeyes in the Big Ten championship game.
“We were confident right up to the last play we were going to make a stop down there – I think everybody on our team was,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We couldn’t quite get off the field. It’s that close. It’s how close the game was.”
Michigan State defeats Iowa 16-13, winning the Big Ten football championship.
The Spartans melted 9 minutes and 4 seconds off the clock before Scott lunged out of the grasp of two Iowa defenders for a 1-yard touchdown after the Hawkeyes turned Michigan State away twice from inside the 3. It was the longest drive of the season in the Big Ten.
“That goes down in the annals as one of the greatest drives of any football game of any time,” longtime Iowa radio analyst Ed Podolak said.
The final tally on the game-winning drive: 17 runs and five passes. The Spartans moved the chains five times on third down and converted their only fourth-down try. Quarterback Connor Cook needed two yards on an option keeper with less than two minutes to play. He reached the first-down marker with a foot to spare.
The Hawkeyes had Michigan State backed into 3rd-and-8 from midfield, but Cook connected with receiver Aaron Burbridge for a gain of 16 to extend the drive.
“We had our opportunities out there,” Iowa safety Jordan Lomax said. “We just weren’t able to come up with the big stop.”
Nearly as important as the touchdown, Michigan State forced Iowa to burn all three of its timeouts and left the Hawkeyes with little time for a last-gasp opportunity.
“As it got down inside the 10, I was saying, ‘Pound it, take the game and the clock,’ ” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “We did it slowly, methodically and didn’t want to really take the ball off the line of scrimmage in those situations because we were getting positive yardage, and that’s a credit to our offensive line, fullbacks and the way our running backs were running the football, as well as our quarterback running it.”
The last drive belonged to Scott, one of the nation’s top running back recruits in the 2015 class. The true freshman ran 14 times for 40 yards, a large chunk of which came with Iowa defenders in tow.
"We talk a lot about mental toughness here and physical toughness,” Dantonio said. “What I saw was mental toughness – four times to one. ”
Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard squeezed the pass into the tightest on red-zone windows, threading the ball in between the Michigan State defense and into tight end George Kittle’s hands.
For a split-second, it looked like a 5-yard touchdown. Then incompletion appeared imminent. Ultimately, though, it resulted in a bizarre interception.
Michigan State linebacker Riley Bullough drilled Kittle, jarring the ball loose and into the air. But Bullough hit the turf before the football could and the ball bounced off the junior’s back and defensive back Demetrious Cox alertly scooped it up for a pick.
In a game that tipped on the outcome of a precious few scoring opportunities, the strange second-quarter interception turned out a monumental momentum in a defensive slugfest. For Iowa, it was a second opportunity lost. The Hawkeyes drove to the Spartan 6 on their third possession and had to settle for a 24-yard Marshall Koehn field goal.
In the process of ripping away the Big Ten championship, Michigan State also stole the league lead in turnover margin away from Iowa.
The Hawkeyes and Spartans entered play Saturday tied for tops in the conference and knotted for fourth nationally in turnover margin, each with 25 takeaways and 11 giveaways.
Iowa turned the ball over twice. Michigan State lost it once.
Iowa tight end Henry Krieger Coble coughed up a fumble at the Hawkeye 27 on the game’s opening drive. The Spartans turned it into a field goal.
The Hawkeyes evened the score later in the quarter when linebacker Josey Jewell picked off Cook at the Michigan State 20 to set Iowa up for a field goal.
Beathard’s second-quarter interception was his first since Oct. 17. It snapped a string of 146 consecutive passes without a pick.
It was the first time the Hawkeyes came up on the losing end of the turnover battle since the season opener against Illinois State when they lost a fumble and came away with no takeaways.
Iowa was fortunate to get through the night only minus-1 in the turnover category. One of the biggest plays of the first half for the Hawkeyes was made by their 6-foot-5, 295-pound right guard.
With Iowa leading 6-3 late in the half and backed deep into its own end, Beathard dropped back to pass and fumbled after getting belted in the back by all-Big Ten defensive end Shilique Calhoun. The ball tumbled across the turf and into the vicinity of a couple Spartans, but Iowa guard Cole Croston’s hustle recovery prevented Michigan State from taking over at the Iowa 15-yard-line.
Relive the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis David Scrivner/Iowa City Press-Citizen
The Hawkeyes utilized their full four-man fleet at tailback, perhaps part by design and part out of necessity.
Akrum Wadley got the start, but Iowa went to Jordan Canzeri and LeShun Daniels early. Canzeri, though, exited in the first quarter after sustaining an ankle injury and did not return, leaving him 20 rushing yards shy of 1,000 for the season.
Derrick Mitchell led the Hawkeyes in rushing with 24 yards on four carries and had Iowa’s only double-digit rushing gain of the night.
Wadley became a weapon out of the backfield in the passing game for the first time in his career. He entered Saturday with one career catch for minus-1 yard, but the sophomore made three grabs for 34 yards against the Spartans.