INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — C.J. Beathard thought he had come up with another perfect ending Saturday night.
Then the Iowa quarterback watched it all vanish in the last minute of the Big Ten championship game — the undefeated season, his unblemished record a starter and a ticket to the playoffs.
L.J. Scott twisted free from a host of Iowa defenders and lunged across the goal line for a 1-yard touchdown run with 27 seconds left, giving No. 5 Michigan State a 16-13 victory over No. 4 Hawkeyes. The loss virtually assures they will go to a New Year’s Day bowl rather a national semifinal.
“It’s tough. You’ve gone all season long and haven’t experienced what it’s like to lose a game,” Beathard said. “Every time we’ve been in the locker room after a game it’s been exciting. It’s just tough because losing a game like that when it’s that close, it’s hard to handle.”
Beathard had given Iowa (12-1, No. 4 CFP) a 13-9 lead with a brilliant 85-yard touchdown pass to Tevaun Smith on the first play of the fourth quarter for the game’s first touchdown.
And right up until the final sequence, it looked as if that score might prove the difference.
Even coach Kirk Ferentz was confident the Hawkeyes’ stingy defense could close it out. But Beathard wore down the defense, which finally broke down after four consecutive stops from their own 5-yard line or closer.
“We were confident right up to the last play that we’d make a stop down there,” Ferentz said. “We’ve been there before and we’ve done that. But it’s that close and that’s how this game was and I think that’s how the margin between the two teams is.”
Scott’s late lunge almost certainly put Michigan State (12-1, No. 5 CFP) into the College Football Playoff.
No matter how many times he got hit, the freshman kept powering forward. And with one final stretch, he reached the ball into the end zone for the winning score.
“I was just trying to make a big play for my brothers,” Scott said. “We knew what we had at stake.”
Quarterback Connor Cook led the Spartans on a 22-play drive that set up Scott’s score on third down. A half-dozen Iowa defenders tried to stop Scott and pushed him backward, but he wouldn’t be denied.
In all, it took six seconds for the 233-pound running back to travel that final, season-saving yard.
When the Spartans’ defense closed it out, Michigan State’s players sprinted across the field and into the end zone where they celebrated with a throng of fans hoping for an even longer journey. They’ll find out their next destination Sunday afternoon.
By winning his second Big Ten crown in three years — both against previously unbeaten teams — and giving the senior class a record-breaking 43rd career win, Cook and his teammates can turn now their focus to their season-long goal, winning the school’s first outright national title since 1952.
“We wanted to come back and win a championship,” Cook said. “It’s awesome, man.”
Cook, who played with a sore shoulder and appeared to get hurt a couple of times during the game, seemed a bit off until the end.
He finished 16 of 32 with 191 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. He still became the first player chosen the title game MVP twice — largely because of the poise he demonstrated on a methodical 82-yard drive that consumed 9 minutes, 4 seconds and essentially sealed Iowa’s fate.
With the season on the line, Cook and the offense made play after play against an Iowa defense that hadn’t given up a touchdown all night. Iowa could not.
But for all of the talk about the league’s two best quarterbacks going head-to-head, this game ended with a decidedly old-school flavor.
Scott ran 22 times for 73 yards against a stingy defense that stopped Michigan State on four consecutive snaps inside the Iowa 5 in the final two minutes.
On the fifth try, Scott stood up, spun away and finally put away the Hawkeyes.
“He’s a load. I felt like if he found a crease he’d get more,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. “As it got down inside the 10-yard line, pound it, take the game and the clock, which I think is a big thing. We got the game and the clock. We did it slowly and methodically.”
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