Spartans edge Iowa in final minute of Big Ten epic

Chad Leistikow

INDIANAPOLIS — The clock struck midnight on Iowa’s dream football season, around 11:50 Eastern time.

Michigan State delivered a 22-play, championship drive, scoring its only touchdown of Saturday’s Big Ten Conference title game in the final minute to beat Iowa, 16-13, and likely punch its ticket to the College Football Playoff.

“It’s tough to handle,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “But you need to live with it.”

Now the 12-1 Hawkeyes will wait until about 2 p.m. Sunday to figure out if they’re going to the Rose Bowl. But their hopes of a national championship died with 27 seconds left at Lucas Oil Stadium. True freshman LJ Scott reached the ball across the goal line, lunging out of the hold of two Hawkeye defenders, for a 1-yard score to cap an 82-yard drive that took more than 9 minutes.

Against Wisconsin, Iowa forced a fourth-quarter fumble at the 1-yard line to win 10-6.

“We were confident right up until the last play that we could make a stop there,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I think everybody on our team was. We’ve been there before, and we’ve done that.”

Spartans quarterback Connor Cook, the game’s MVP, made two clutch plays to extend the longest drive by a Big Ten team this season. On a third-and-8 from midfield, he split two Hawkeye defenders with a throw to Aaron Burbridge for 16 yards.

“We thought we had ‘em stopped,” safety Jordan Lomax said. “If we had made that play, we might’ve given ourselves a better chance.”

Then Cook ran on fourth-and-2 to the left side from Iowa’s 5-yard line with just under 2 minutes to go. It took the 12-1 Spartans three more plays to finally punch it in from 3 yards out, but by the time they did, Iowa was almost out of time.

“Score or go home,” Cook said. “We knew we were going to get it.”

Iowa takeaways: Scott's stretch, missed chances, tailback by committee

The Big Ten West champion Hawkeyes took over at their own 27 with 22 seconds left, but Beathard was hit from behind and fumbled on the first play, and Iowa only had 5 seconds left to hope for a miracle that wouldn’t come.

“It’s tough, as an offensive player you want to have the ball,” Beathard said. “The defense played well all game.

“We’ve gone all season long and we haven’t experienced what it feels like to lose a game.”

Iowa spent the most successful season in its history overcoming adversity. The Hawkeyes survived seven times this year in games that came down to the fourth quarter — beating Iowa State, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska — to piece together a historic 12-0 regular season, setting a school record for wins.

But Saturday, the adversity Iowa faced was wearing green and white. The Hawkeyes were held 150 yards below their season rushing average, managing just 52 yards on 24 attempts. It didn’t help that leading rusher Jordan Canzeri was lost for the game with a first-quarter ankle injury.

The Spartans’ defense was physical and stingy against an offense that averaged 33.7 points per game in the regular season. It was so suffocating that Iowa ran seven third-quarter plays for 3 yards.

But then, with one heave, the game changed in the Hawkeyes’ favor. Down 9-6, Beathard dropped back to pass on the first play of the fourth quarter on second-and-20 from his own 15. His line gave him just enough time to sling a deep ball to Tevaun Smith, on the money, for an 85-yard touchdown and a 13-9 lead with 14:49 left.

“An excellent call by (offensive coordinator Greg Davis),” Ferentz said. “Really gave us a spark there.”

But after Iowa’s Dillon Kidd punted it away with from his own 48 with 9:31 left, Beathard and the Hawkeyes' offense never got another legitimate chance to answer. And for the first time in 14 college starts, Beathard didn’t walk away with a win.

“Couldn’t be prouder of this group,” Ferentz said. “They’ve been absolutely fantastic to work with from Day 1. I don’t know if they could’ve competed any harder tonight.”

Brown: Deepest pain as Iowa sees foe finish epic march

Both teams can look back at a slugfest first half and see missed opportunities — and great defense.

From the get-go, two teams that were billed as virtual equals on the stat sheet played that way. Iowa and Michigan State each registered one punt, one turnover and three points in the first quarter.

The Hawkeyes’ first possession began inauspiciously, lasting three plays and ending on Henry Krieger Coble’s lost fumble at the Iowa 27-yard line. But the defense held Michigan State to three points (when Cook’s third-and-goal pass sailed high) — marking the first time Iowa had trailed in 15 quarters, dating to the Indiana win Nov. 7.

Iowa returned the favor by forcing a turnover in Michigan State territory. Blitzing middle linebacker Josey Jewell clutched Cook’s throw-away attempt for an interception at the Spartans’ 20. Marshall Koehn finished that drive with a 24-yard field goal after Beathard’s third-down pass to Smith in the end zone was batted away.

Of the two biggest moments of the second quarter, one went Michigan State’s way, one went Iowa’s.

With Iowa leading 6-3 and facing third-and-goal at the Spartans’ 5, Beathard’s throw over the middle to George Kittle bounced off the tight end’s hands as he was hit and floated onto the back of linebacker Riley Bullough. Safety Demetrious Cox grabbed the ball off his teammate before it hit the ground, and instead of a 13-3 or 9-3 lead for the Hawkeyes, it was Beathard’s first interception since Oct. 17 at Northwestern.

Michigan State records wild interception against Iowa

But with the half winding down, Iowa grabbed a key loose ball of its own. All-world defensive end Shilique Calhoun’s sack forced Beathard to fumble, but right tackle Cole Croston charged between a few Spartan defenders to recover at Iowa’s 15.

The half ended harmlessly, with kicker Michael Geiger’s 52-yard field goal bouncing no good off the crossbar.

When Geiger’s second of two second-half field goals went through the uprights with 57 seconds left in the third quarter, it was 9-6 Michigan State and the latest in a game Iowa had trailed all season — until Saturday’s final minute.

Iowa’s bowl fate will be revealed at 2 p.m. Sunday on ESPN, and barring something completely out of left field it will be one of three New Year’s Six options: The Fiesta or Rose on Jan. 1, or the Peach on Dec. 31.

The best chance for the Hawkeyes to make their first Rose Bowl trip in 25 years would be to stay ahead of 11-1 Ohio State in the final playoff-committee rankings. With Michigan State, the Big Ten champion, a virtual lock for the four-team playoff, the Rose can pick a replacement team and has given every indication it would solely make a pick based on the ratings — although factors like division championships and most recent trip could be considered. Iowa and Ohio State each lost to Michigan State by three points — the Buckeyes in Columbus, the Hawkeyes on a neutral field.

If it’s picked for Pasadena, Iowa would face Pacific-12 Conference champion Stanford. If it’s not, then the Hawkeyes will be headed to either Phoenix (Fiesta) or Atlanta (Peach). Iowa has never played in the Fiesta Bowl and last played in the Peach in 1988.

“The answer is nobody knows right now,” Ferentz said. “Our focus was strictly on winning tonight.

“Wherever we go, there will be a lot of Iowa Hawkeye fans there.”