Iowa's 'what-if' moments from the Big Ten title game loss

Chad Leistikow

Even three days later, the Big Ten Conference championship loss to Michigan State remains an open wound.

Iowa football fans and players alike are having a hard time getting over Saturday night's 16-13 loss in Indianapolis. A berth in the College Football Playoff was literally within inches, and it just barely slipped away in the 60th minute.

Though a Rose Bowl matchup Jan. 1 against Stanford has served as a salve, those in Hawkeye circles can't help but think about this as a missed opportunity to play in football's final four for a national championship. There's never been a 12-0 regular season in Iowa history until this year, so it's understandable to be hurt and wonder if this chance will ever happen again.

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With that in mind, here are 10 "what-if" scenarios in chronological order from Saturday's game -- with the goal of confronting what happened at Lucas Oil Stadium, and reaching the final stage of grief: Acceptance.

Game's second play

What happened: With second-and-6 from Iowa's 29, Akrum Wadley carried left for a gain of 2 yards. But left tackle Boone Myers was flagged (correctly) for holding against gap-charging linebacker Riley Bullough.

The consequences: Myers didn't need to hold; Wadley was going to make it to the edge. But he did. So on the resulting second-and-16, Iowa was forced to throw and fight for bigger yardage to move the chains. And that's when Henry Krieger Coble fumbled trying to lunge ahead after making a catch over the middle -- and Michigan State recovered at Iowa's 27-yard line. That provided Spartan momentum 51 seconds into the game and led to a field goal.

Iowa running back Jordan Canzeri gets brought down during the Hawkeyes' Big Ten Championship game against Michigan State at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind. on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015. Canzeri would exit the game following the play.

A key injury

What happened: Leading rusher Jordan Canzeri's second carry of the game goes for 9 yards in a 3-3 game late in the first quarter, giving Iowa a first down at its own 48. But Canzeri's right ankle is rolled by Darien Harris, and he is helped off the field.

The consequences: The Hawkeyes' most versatile back is out for the game, a huge play calling negative. Canzeri is Iowa's best total-package runner, with speed, power and the ability to catch passes and block. His absence is notable as Iowa only gains 28 rushing yards the rest of the game.

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Iowa tight end George Kittle (46) is hit as he attempted a catch in the end zone by Michigan State linebacker Riley Bullough (30) during the Big Ten Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 5, 2015. The pass was later intercepted.

First-and-goal, Parts I and II

What happened: Iowa gets first-and-goal at the Michigan State 8-yard line twice in the first half ... and comes away with three points. The first time, after Josey Jewell's interception, the Hawkeyes attempt three passes and gain two yards. The second time is more scarring, when a third-and-goal pass goes in and out of George Kittle's hands and falls on top of the back of Bullough and scooped up for an interception by Michigan State's Demetrious Cox.

The consequences: Beathard's fourth interception of the season was filled with what-ifs, including whether Bullough should've been flagged for targeting on a helmet-to-helmet hit in the end zone, which would've given Iowa a first-and-goal and possibly ejected the Spartans' star middle linebacker. Targeting aside, even if Iowa could've come away with a touchdown on either possession, it would've been the four points it needed to reverse a three-point loss.

"Roughing" the punter

What happened: To start the second half, Iowa's defense forces a three-and-out ... until it goes for the punt block on Jake Hartbarger. On fourth-and-5, diving linebackers Bo Bower and Aaron Mends each roll on the ground into Hartbarger's legs. A 15-yard penalty for roughing the punter is assessed.

The consequences: Instead of Iowa starting its drive at its own 42 after Desmond King's punt return, Michigan State uses a nine-play drive to get into Iowa territory and punt it back to the Iowa 12 -- a 30-yard change in field position. The Hawkeyes could never win field position back, starting their five second-half drives at the 12, 25, 25, 22 and 27. Also, it was debatable that "roughing" should've been assessed. If it was called instead "running into" the punter, it would've been a 5-yard walk-off and fourth-and-inches ... and Michigan State probably elects to punt again.

Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback C.J. Beathard (16) reacts during a press conference following Saturday's 16-13 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Conference championship game.

Right through the hands

What happened: In a 6-6 game in the third quarter, on third-and-5, Beathard puts a ball on the money to receiver Jacob Hillyer, who can't hang on for what would've been about an 8-yard completion.

The consequences: Iowa's Dillon Kidd punts only 31 yards, and Michigan State turns that into a field goal and 9-6 lead. This is also key because the Hawkeyes' defense never got much second-half rest in this game (starting with the aforementioned "roughing" drive). Moving the chains was critical in the third quarter, when Iowa's offense ran seven plays for three yards, because it meant tired Hawkeye defenders in the deciding fourth.

Iowa's Akrum Wadley runs down field during the Hawkeyes' Big Ten Championship game against Michigan State at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind. on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015.

No Canzeri; where's Wadley?

What happened: Wadley, Iowa's quickest running back, doesn't get an official second-half carry.

The consequences: Granted, Iowa only ran 16 plays in the second half. But without Canzeri, the Hawkeyes were not able to establish a running game, recording six carries for minus-7 yards after halftime. Wadley did have a nice 14-yard reception in the fourth quarter.

Iowa's Tevaun Smith celebrates his 85-yard touchdown with George Kittle during the Hawkeyes' Big Ten Championship game against Michigan State at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind. on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015.

Defensive holding costs Iowa 6

What happened: The Hawkeyes and offensive coordinator Greg Davis were going for the jugular. On its first offensive play after going up 13-9 after Beathard's 85-yard TD strike to Tevaun Smith, Iowa goes deep again and Matt VandeBerg breaks loose up the right sideline. But Michigan State's Darian Hicks makes the smart move to grab VandeBerg as he's about to run free underneath Beathard's deep pass.

The consequences: Instead of a real good possibility of a 78-yard TD bomb, Iowa only gets a 10-yard defensive holding penalty instead. This would become Iowa's last real drive of the game, with Kidd punting it away seven plays later to Michigan State's 18 with 9:31 left.

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook (18) delivers a pass against Iowa during the Big Ten Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 5, 2015.

A professional throw

What happened: Michigan State's 22-play, winning touchdown drive was extended on third-and-8 with just over 5 minutes to go from midfield. Connor Cook dropped in a perfect pass to star receiver Aaron Burbridge, with inches to spare between cornerback Greg Mabin (in front) and safety Jordan Lomax (behind) for 16 yards.

The consequences: Instead of an obvious punting situation and giving Iowa's offense control of the game, the Spartans move into four-down territory and keep Iowa on the defensive.

Fourth-and-2; let them score?

What happened: After an Iowa timeout, Cook runs left on fourth-and-2 from the 5 with the game on the line, getting a first down by about 18 inches inside Iowa's 3. Iowa is out of timeouts. Fox announcers speculate whether Iowa should let Michigan State score. Some Hawkeye fans are still debating this topic.

The consequences: As it turned out, Iowa could've used more time than 22 seconds to try to answer LJ Scott's 1-yard TD run. But there was no way coach Kirk Ferentz would instruct his 11 guys on defense to lay down, especially when they had forced a fumble at the 1-yard line at Wisconsin two months earlier to win a 10-6 game. Giving up seven free points would have gone against everything Iowa football has been about since January: Togetherness and fighting for every slight edge.

The winning TD: Bud was so close

What happened: On third-and-goal inside Iowa's 1, Scott took a handoff right and was hit by Jewell around the 2. He spun into the arms of Cole Fisher and Desmond King, but reached the ball forward and upward just as Melvin "Bud" Spears was diving to try to jar the ball loose. Touchdown Spartans.

The consequences: That was the game, with 27 seconds to go. Michigan State 16, Iowa 13. The Spartans go to the College Football Playoff; Iowa does not. But the Hawkeyes gain national respect with the loss, and it's underscored with a Rose Bowl invitation instead of defending national champion Ohio State. The Hawkeye program took an unexpected step forward in 2015, even in a crushing defeat. And the consolation prize is this: If Iowa can beat Stanford to finish 13-1, it will end up with the school's first season-ending top-five national ranking since 1960.

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