Big Ten

Even in defeat, Hawkeyes prove they belong with college football's best

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Even in defeat, Hawkeyes prove they belong with college football's best

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.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Colossal late-game TD drive gives Spartans win over Hawkeyes in Big Ten Championship Game]

“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.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Though Playoff awaits, Spartans can count mission at least partly accomplished]

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.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten Championship Game puts program successes of Dantonio, Ferentz on display]

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.”

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Hawkeyes gear right here]

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.”

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?