INDIANAPOLIS — There were many who thought Iowa still had something to prove.
An undefeated regular season — one of just two FBS teams to pull that off this year — and a Big Ten West Division crown wasn’t enough for them. The No. 4 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings seemed undeserved.
Debate the strength of schedule all you want, Iowa won all its games. But for some that just wasn’t enough.
So up against the No. 5 team in those same College Football Playoff rankings, the Hawkeyes finally had an opportunity to prove they belonged, that they were deserving of being just a win away from competing for a national championship.
While it won’t get the chance to compete for that national title after losing to Michigan State, 16-13, in Saturday night’s Big Ten Championship Game, Iowa did accomplish something: It proved it belonged.
“We played extremely well tonight. We played extremely hard against a great football team,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said after the game. “They played well, too. So to be here competing, there's no substitute for that. Time ran out on us. Congratulations to them. Time ran out. I feel like our team has a bunch of champions, too.”
“I feel like we proved a lot,” defensive back Greg Mabin said. “Defensively, I feel like we went out there and stopped one of the best offenses in the country for the most part. Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but I feel like we proved a lot of people wrong. A lot of people had us losing this game. We came to expect that. We’re used to being the underdogs, we’ve been the underdogs all season.”
No, the Hawkeyes didn’t walk out of Lucas Oil Stadium with a conference championship, nor will they receive a spot in college football’s final four on Sunday. But if Michigan State is one of the country’s best teams, Iowa forced it to pull off a win in incredible fashion. Because of what the Hawkeyes did in the game’s first 51 minutes, the Spartans needed to put together a 22-play, 82-yard, nine-minute drive to get the game-winning score, a score that only came thanks to LJ Scott stretching for the end zone with less than a half minute to play.
The Hawkeyes kept the Spartans under 200 yards both passing and rushing. The defense played terrifically for the majority of the evening, giving Big Ten Quarterback of the Year Connor Cook fits with a strong pass rush and even better defensive-back play.
And the Iowa defense might have bent, but it didn’t break. Six times prior to that final drive, Michigan State possessions ended inside the Iowa 40-yard line. The results? Three made field goals, two missed field goals and a punt.
As defensive performances go, the Hawkeyes’ was top notch.
“We take pride in our defense. We feel like we’re a defensive-minded team. Our defense is our backbone. We played a hell of a game, we were playing our asses off,” Mabin said. “Ultimately it wasn’t enough. They had a great final drive. They milked the clock down. Drove down a good deal of the field and punched it in for the touchdown.”
And though the Spartans played just as well defensively, limiting the Hawkeyes to just 268 total yards, it was Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard who had the game’s biggest play through the first 51 minutes. Beathard’s downfield heave to Tevaun Smith was a perfect throw. Smith caught it in stride and raced the rest of the way for an 85-yard touchdown. It brought the mostly pro-Iowa crowd to life, and considering the game’s lone scoring to that point had been five field goals, it looked like enough to put Michigan State away just seconds into the fourth quarter.
“We felt like we needed to take a shot on their defense, and the coaches trusted us to make a play,” Smith said. “We just needed to take a shot, needed that momentum, and we got that momentum, gave our defense the momentum.
“But obviously this game wasn’t the outcome we wanted.”
There’s no doubting, of course, that the loss was a crushing one for the Hawkeyes. This year’s group had yet to taste defeat, same for Beathard, who was 14-0 in his career as a starter. A team that rode so high through the entirety of the regular season saw its season crash down in the final moments as the Spartans inched their way toward the conference championship.
So for a team that hoisted four trophies in rivalry games this season, there was no trophy ceremony Saturday night in Indianapolis. A postseason win would yield hardware, but it won’t be the game the Hawkeyes had their hopes set on playing in, and it it won’t be the trophy they were hoping to raise.
“It’s tough. We've gone all season long, haven’t experienced what it feels like to lose a game,” Beathard said. “Every time we've been in that locker room after a game, it's been exciting, joyful and stuff. It's just tough because losing a game like that when it's that close, it's hard to handle. But we have another game ahead of us, and we'll find out who that opponent is coming up here soon. But, yeah, you just got to move forward.”
Even in defeat, though, make no mistake: This wasn’t Iowa finally getting what it deserved, this was Iowa proving it belonged.
Michigan State has transformed itself into a college football power under Mark Dantonio, and while Kirk Ferentz’s 17-year tenure at Iowa has had its ups and downs, sticking with Michigan State on Saturday night showed this current up is one that featured the Hawkeyes as very much one of the country’s best teams.
Twenty seven seconds and two more goal-line stops — Iowa had already made a pair before Scott’s touchdown run on third and goal — were all that prevented us from talking about the Hawkeyes and their next step toward a national championship. That’s pretty darn close.
Hanging with one of college football’s finest nearly wire to wire didn’t just earn a pat on the back, it showed that the game featured not one but two of college football’s finest teams.
“We were confident right up to the last play we were going to make a stop down there, I think everybody on our team was,” Ferentz said. “We’ve been there before and done that. It was a great, competitive football game. They had it when they needed it. We couldn't quite get off the field. It's that close. It's how close this game was. I think that's how the margins between the two teams is.”
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The truth is that these two teams were and remain very close. Michigan State will be the one competing for a national championship, while Iowa might or might not end up in the Rose Bowl, something else that’s up to the Playoff selection committee.
But with national perception such an important part of college football these days, the Hawkeyes accomplished one big thing Saturday night.
Let the debate rest. Let the strength of schedule criticisms die. Even in a losing effort, Iowa proved it belongs at the top of this season’s heap.
“I feel like we definitely proved some people wrong, that we can really play competitive football with the best teams,” Smith said. “Unfortunately we came out with the loss, but we definitely proved that we can play some football.”