By Rebecca Harris
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS—They looked like extras in an apocalyptic movie.
Black eye paint smeared everywhere. Scuffed elbows. Blood stains on pants. Eyes on the verge of tears. And a haunted look on every face that undoubtedly will stay there for a while.
The University of Iowa lost to the Michigan State University, 16-13, in heartbreaking fashion, the winning touchdown coming with 27 seconds left in the Big Ten Football Championship Game.
The Spartans, who won their ninth conference title and the second in three seasons, are expected to be selected for a spot in the College Football Playoff semifinals. The Hawkeyes, their season suddenly imperfect, will wait for a bowl destination as they live with the final, decisive moments.
“Losing a game like that…it’s hard to handle,” said Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard.
Soft voices filled the interview room as players tried to describe just how the game slipped away from them in the final seconds. A win would have extended Iowa’s record to 13-0 and given the program its first Big Ten championship since 2004 and an almost guaranteed spot in the playoffs. The players could have left the Iowa program as legends.
While Iowa’s weary defense could not stop Michigan State’s final drive, the unit was the reason Iowa stayed in the game until the bitter end.
Through the first three quarters, Michigan State’s senior quarterback, Connor Cook, often struggled, completing 13 of 26 passes with an interception by Hawkeye linebacker Josey Jewell. The Hawkeyes pressured Cook all night, causing him to scramble multiple times and force throws.
Michigan State’s first half drives ended with a field goal, an interception, two field goal attempts and two punts, a stat line any defense would love to see.
“We take pride in our defense,” said defensive back Greg Mabin.
However, after two field goals, one punt and a touchdown in the second half, Iowa was left in disbelief.
“They made some very good plays and we slipped up a few times,” said Jaleel Johnson, a defensive lineman.
Michigan State launched a masterful touchdown drive, lasting 9:04 and covering 82 yards in 22 plays.
With 1:59 to go, Michigan State faced a fourth-and-two situation with the ball at the Hawkeye 5-yard line. Cook scrambled for what seemed like the hundredth time that night. Unlike so many times before when the defense stayed firm, this time Cook earned the first down. Three plays later, running back LJ Scott scored the winning touchdown.
Several Iowa players, including defensive back Desmond King, believed that their worst enemy was the clock. With no timeouts left, Iowa’s offense tried to pull together to get into field goal range with 22 seconds left in the game.
“We just ran out of time,” King said.
Coach Kirk Ferentz echoed the comment.
“Time ran out on us,” he said. “Congratulations to them. Time ran out.”
Iowa had one missed chance earlier in the game that could have made the difference as the clock ticked down.
Late in the second quarter, Beathard made a costly error. With four minutes left until halftime and the Hawkeyes at the Spartan 5-yard line, Beathard looked for the end zone. His pass, intended for tight end George Kittle, caromed off the back of linebacker Riley Bullough’s right shoulder and was grabbed by safety Demetrious Cox with 3:51 to go.
It was a common refrain for the Iowa offense throughout the night: drive after drive ending in punts and two field goals until finally, a break came with Beathard’s breathtaking 85-yard touchdown pass to open the fourth quarter. The stunner to receiver Tevaun Smith was the first of the game and put the Hawkeyes up 13-9, a lead they ultimately were unable to maintain.
While the players were still too shell-shocked to find the positive in the assurance of a bowl game, with the Rose Bowl as a possibility, Ferentz could. He commented on the fact that at least this won’t be the final memory of the season, even if it is a gut-wrenching one.
“Luckily we still have one more in our future,” he said.