The Big Ten Championship Game had all the earmarks of a night that just wasn’t going to be Michigan State’s. They had made critical mistakes with penalties at big moments, negating drives and costing themselves points. They allowed an 85-yard touchdown pass. Connor Cook wasn’t sharp and Iowa’s secondary was sticking to Sparty receivers like glue.
But in a drive for the ages, Michigan State went 82 yards and took an amazing 22 plays to do it. One final all-guts run by L.J. Scott gave the Spartans a 16-13 win, gave them a conference title and a ticket to the College Football Playoff.
It was apparent early in the game that Cook was not himself. It’s easy to blame it on the shoulder injury, and that clearly did affect him on some throws across his body. But I was more struck by how impatient Cook was in the pocket. Michigan State’s offensive line did a good job in pass protection, keeping the Iowa front four at bay.
The Hawkeyes played for coverage and dropped their linebackers. Cook kept getting rid of the ball quickly to a blanketed receiver. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered, given how good Iowa’s secondary has been all year. But it seemed like the Spartan quarterback had a case of happy feet going.
Iowa, after a turnover gave Michigan State a 3-0 lead, took the momentum for the balance of the first half, but only led 6-3 at the half. There was a big interception in the end zone by Sparty’s Demetrious Cox. It wasn’t the fault of Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard, who delivered the ball on the money to George Kittle. Nor was it Kittle’s fault—a ferocious hit by Riley Bullough jarred the ball loose and as the football stayed on bodies, an alert Cox—one of three Spartans converging—scooped it up and killed the threat.
In watching the replay, I’m surprised there was not more thought given to a helmet-to-helmet hit by Burrough. We only saw the camera angle from the backside, so it’s possible Burrough was in Kittle’s chest, though we’d need the angle from the other side to be sure. But if you ask me to guess, I think it’s likely that Michigan State got a monumental break that this was not called.
Early in the fourth quarter, it seemed like Michigan State finally had control of the game. They had nudged out to a 9-6 lead and Iowa was pinned deep facing a second-and-long on their own 15. The Spartans were getting a running game going and seemed poised to get their offense the ball back in workable field position.
Then Beathard simply cut loose and on a post pattern to Tevaun Smith, who had single coverage down the field. The pass was perfect and Smith hauled it in and went the distance. In a Big 12 football game, these kinds of plays and defensive breakdowns are par for the course and there was a lot of time left. In a game where players were actually covering, hitting and tackling, a four-point lead for Iowa suddenly looked perilously close to insurmountable—Michigan State, after all, would have to do something they hadn’t done all night and that was put the football in the end zone.
Sparty got the ball back on their own 18 and began the methodical march down the field. Cook may not have played his best game, but he hit some good throws here and he made a gutsy 4th-and-2 run around the end to get the ball to the 3-yard line. Let’s put that in perspective—a future first-round NFL draft pick with a sore shoulder, lowered his shoulder and took some big hits to get the first down that kept his team alive.
It got 3rd-and-goal on the 1-yard line. As one who was rooting for the Spartans, I implored Michigan State simply not to do anything that involved a deep handoff with a risk for a loss of yardage, Naturally, that’s exactly what they did, giving the ball to Scott deep in the backfield.
By rights, Mark Dantonio, a coach I otherwise think is great, should be getting excoriated for the play call this morning. Iowa had a wave of black and gold in position to smother Scott for a 2-3 yard loss and then close out the game in a favorable fourth down situation a play later. But Scott made an all-effort run to cap off the drive for the ages. He fought through the first wave. Then, seemingly wrapped up just inside the 1, he got the football out over the plane. Game, set and match.
I’ve already seen media recaps of this game talking about how was an exciting ending, but a boring football game. To me, it was what a Big Ten Championship Game ought to be. It was physical, it was tough and the fundamentals were sound. Whether these teams, and the rest of the conference brethren will match up in the coming Playoff and bowl season remains to be seen. But it was a great night of football from Indianapolis, and The Longest Drive takes its place in college football history.