INDIANAPOLIS — After three quarters and not a touchdown to be found, two scores in the fourth quarter made for an exciting finish to Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game.
Iowa scored a touchdown on an 85-yard pass play on the first play of the fourth quarter, taking a 13-9 lead on Michigan State after the teams combined for 15 points on five field goals through three quarters. But the Spartans put together an incredibly lengthy, incredibly gutsy scoring drive late in the game that was capped by a remarkable effort on an LJ Scott touchdown run, stretching across the goal line for a score that proved the game-winner, as Michigan State bested Iowa, 16-13.
With the win, the Spartans not only earned a league title but in all likelihood punched a ticket to the College Football Playoff, where they will compete for a national championship.
Michigan State improved to 12-1 on the season with the victory. What game No. 14 will be remains to be seen. The Spartans will await the word of the College Football Playoff selection committee, which will announce Playoff seeding Sunday.
Iowa, meanwhile, suffered its first defeat of the season, dropping the record to a no-longer-spotless 12-1. The Hawkeyes could still make a New Year’s Six bowl game.
After nothing but field goals, things picked up at the start of the fourth quarter. The period’s first play was a downfield heave by Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard, a pass that landed in the hands of a sprinting Tevaun Smith, who ran the rest of the way for the 85-yard score, the longest pass of Beathard’s career, that put Iowa in front, 13-9.
It took until the later stages of the quarter, but the Spartans dug deep to answer. Connor Cook appeared off much of the contest, perhaps bothered by the injury he suffered three weeks ago. Michigan State got the ball on its own 18-yard line with nine and a half minutes to play and engineered a methodical, 22-play march that featured a whole lot of Scott and a couple huge plays by Cook and receiver Aaron Burbridge.
After the Hawkeyes stuffed Scott on third and two from the five-yard line, Cook kept the ball on an option and picked up the first down at the three-yard line. After two more stops with goal to go, Scott stretched across the goal line for the touchdown, capping the 22-play, 82-yard drive that lasted more than nine minutes.
It was one heck of an ending for a team that’s made late-game scores the defining moments of its signature wins this season.
Defense dominated from the start in this one, each defense forcing a turnover early.
On just the third play of the game, Henry Krieger-Coble fumbled — which was determined after a review — to give the ball over to the Spartans at the Hawkeyes’ 27-yard line. Michigan State nearly squandered the opportunity when an offensive pass-interference flag moved it back to the Iowa 42-yard line. But Cook hit Felton Davis III for a 22-yard gain on third and 15, setting up first and goal. Still, the Spartans were forced to settle for a Michael Geiger field goal, giving them a 3-0 lead in a win for the Hawkeyes, who allowed just three points off the turnover.
The next time the Spartans had the ball, they had an equally bad turnover, with an under-pressure Cook throwing an interception right into the arms of Josey Jewell, and the Hawkeyes took over at the Michigan State 20-yard line. On third and six, Beathard took off and made it past the first-down marker to set up first and goal. But, just like the Spartans before them, the Hawkeyes couldn’t get into the end zone in three tries, and Marshall Koehn’s field goal tied the game at three, this time giving a win to the Spartans.
Iowa reached the red zone at the outset of the second quarter and faced a fourth and four from the 20. Kirk Ferentz decided to go for it, causing a Mark Dantonio timeout. Ferentz still went for it after the timeout, except the Hawkeyes were flagged for a false start. Koehn kicked and made his second field goal of the game, putting Iowa in front, 6-3.
Michigan State got inside the Iowa 30-yard line, but Cook took a sack on a third down for a loss of five yards, setting up a tricky 52-yard field-goal try for Geiger, who was barely wide left on the attempt.
After Beathard displayed some terrific elusiveness and got the Hawkeyes all the way to the five-yard line, a third-down pass to the end zone bounced out of the hands of George Kittle, off the shoulder of linebacker Riley Bullough and into the hands of Demetrious Cox for an interception. It was a remarkably wild play that kept the Hawkeyes from grabbing all the momentum with a score and gave the ball back to the Spartans, bailing out a Michigan State defense that was carved up for 60 yards.
The Spartans couldn’t turn the turnover into anything, punting back to the Hawkeyes. Shilique Calhoun nearly turned the game around with a sack of Beathard, which forced a fumble, but Iowa recovered. Michigan State got the ball back with half a minute till halftime, and Cook got the Spartans downfield enough for another 52-yard field-goal attempt. But Geiger missed that one, too, hitting the crossbar and keeping Michigan State down three heading into the break.
After a few uneventful series to start the second half, Michigan State took over at its own 42-yard line and went down the field, finally finding some success running the ball. Scott accounted for 30 yards on the drive, but again up close, the Spartans couldn’t get into the end zone, Cook’s pass on third down from the 11-yard line going way over the head of Macgarrett Kings Jr. Geiger kicked another field goal, this one from 29 yards out, to tie the game at 6.
Given good field position once more, the Spartans made it downfield on a 15-yard pass from Cook to Burbridge and a 12-yard London run. But a big offensive pass-interference penalty wiped out a first down, and once more Michigan State settled for a field-goal attempt. Geiger hit his third of the game from 46 yards out to give the Spartans a 9-6 lead.
Then came the fourth-quarter scores and Michigan State’s Big Ten championship.
The Spartans finished with 365 yards of offense, the Hawkeyes with 268.
Cook finished 16-of-32 for 191 yards, while Beathard was 18-for-26 for 216 yards and a touchdown. Scott was the game’s leading rusher with 73 yards on 22 carries.