Brown: Deepest pain as Iowa sees foe finish epic march
INDIANAPOLIS — Finishing.
That’s been a magical, go-to word for Iowa’s football team this season. It’s why the Hawkeyes went through the regular season 12-0, finding themselves on the doorstep of a Big Ten championship and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
But Saturday night, with the finish line within reach, the fourth-ranked Hawkeyes came 27 cruel seconds shy.
Fifth-ranked Michigan State took home the riches with an epic, game-winning drive: 82 yards, 22 plays, devouring 9 minutes, 4 seconds.
And a lifetime of black-and-gold heartbreak was born after a 16-13 loss at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“Score or go home,” said the engineer of that winning drive, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook. “We knew we were going to win.”
That they did. It was the Spartans’ only touchdown of the game, crafted by a first-team, all-conference quarterback. It was also driven by the legs of freshman running back LJ Scott. He had 14 carries on that unceasing march, as Michigan State moved the ball and melted the clock on its way to the winning drive. The biggest drive of the Big Ten season.
“I wish it had a different outcome,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I was confident until the last play that we’d make a stop."
It was a drive that stunned a pro-Hawkeye crowd that had been rocking Lucas Oil Stadium after Iowa’s C.J. Beathard, the second-team all-Big Ten quarterback, had given his team a 13-9 lead with an 85-yard strike to Tevaun Smith on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Iowa had not trailed in the fourth quarter of a game all season until Michigan State took a 9-6 lead into the final period. That Spartans advantage lasted 11 seconds, the time it took Smith to gather in a Beathard pass that traveled 58 yards into the air and reach the end zone.
Saturday is the seventh time Iowa was in a game that hung in the balance by a touchdown or less in the fourth quarter.
Six were finished off. One got away, even though Michigan State's 16 points was a season-low.
“Time ran out on us; congratulations to them,” Ferentz said. “But there are champions in our locker room.”
Four times, Michigan State faced third down on the final drive. Iowa’s defense, stubborn and resilient all game, finally got a stop on the fifth third-down play at the Hawkeyes' 5. But on a fourth-and-2 play, Cook rolled to his left and stretched for the first down.
"He said he could get it," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
Three plays later, Scott’s second-effort reach got the pigskin over the goal line, with plenty of prizes to come.
"A great, competitive football game," Ferentz said. "They had it when they needed it, and we couldn’t get off the field. It was that close.”
Iowa’s consolation gift should be a trip to the Rose Bowl. This team deserves a trip to Pasadena, Calif. We’ll find out Sunday what the playoff committee and the Rose Bowl committee say. We’ll see if blue-blood Ohio State gets the nod over a team that played black-and-blue, team football all season long.
The Buckeyes, sitting at home Saturday night, lost to this Michigan State team 17-14 at home on Nov. 21. And Cook didn’t even play that afternoon because of a shoulder injury.
“Wherever they want to send us, we’ll be glad to go,” Ferentz said.
That's the politically correct thing to say. But by Sunday afternoon, Ferentz deserves to have a Rose Bowl to go with those two Orange Bowls on his resume. Iowa, cast as an outsider that didn’t deserve to be in the playoff conversation, came within 27 seconds of shutting up all the talking heads once and for all with a trip to college football’s final four.
And as you'd expect, Iowa's fate was determined by a handful of plays. None bigger than Beathard's fourth interception of the season, a fluke pick it was. On a third-and-goal play from the Michigan State 5, with Iowa holding a precarious, 6-3 lead in the second quarter, Beathard threw a dart to tight end George Kittle in the end zone. Kittle had the ball for a second but got popped by linebacker Riley Bullough.
Helmet-to-helmet? The officials didn't think so. And instead of the ball falling to the turf, it landed on Bullough's shoulder.
That's where Demetrious Cox found it and pulled it off his teammate's back. Instead of at least Koehn chip-shot field goal, Iowa went away empty. It was Beathard's first intereption in 146 passes.
One of many plays. But it was as big as Scott's game-winning touchdown, or any of the Spartans' third-down conversions at the end of the game.
“It’s tough,” Beathard said. “All season long, we've never experienced what it feels like to lose a game. Losing a game like that, when it’s that close, is hard to handle. But we have another game ahead of us.”
One game at a time. That’s been this team’s mantra all season long. And now we’re down to this: one more game. One more chance to add another chapter to a memorable season.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.