INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan State found a way all season. And now it should find itself in the College Football Playoff.
The Spartans ground out a 16–13 comeback victory over unbeaten Iowa in the Big Ten championship game, all but assuring their spot in the playoff bracket as a result. Here are three quick thoughts on the title game that served as a de facto playoff quarterfinal:
1. Welcome to the nation’s elite, Michigan State
Forget about the chips on the shoulders; they have been knocked to the ground and stomped into dust. Mark Dantonio’s program has now won 10 or more games in five of the last six seasons and will play for a national championship starting on New Year’s Eve.
That is a level of consistency with few peers nationally, and certainly a level of success that dozens of programs across the country would sell vital organs for. “I hope we stay grounded in who we are as a program and continue to just stride and do a little bit better than we’ve always done, and move a little bit farther,” Dantonio said Friday, when asked if a win would elevate his team from blue-collar underdog to national blue blood. He might not have a choice in the matter, especially if the winning continues all the way to Jan. 11.
2. Can a Big Ten team win another national title with offense as limited as this?
Defense can win championships, but against any of the offenses the Spartans could face in the postseason, they will need some points along the way as well. All Michigan State and Iowa could muster in the first half Saturday through three quarters were four field goals. The red zone play was anemic for offenses that both entered the game averaging a little more than 33 points per game. Yes, one big play turned the tide in favor of the Hawkeyes: An 85-yard bomb early in the fourth quarter from C.J. Beathard to Tevaun Smith. And Michigan State authored a stirring fourth-quarter drive that won them the game on a one-yard touchdown run by L.J. Scott.
But on Dec. 31, the Spartans are going to need much more percussive production, no matter who they face, and much less of whatever happened in the first three quarters on Saturday.
3. The play of the game, of course, featured Connor Cook running the option
Michigan State’s All-Big Ten quarterback did not look anything like himself all night, airmailing pass after pass that, presumably, he hits with regularity when healthy. Cook’s previously injured shoulder appeared to be bothering him once more. So, naturally, when facing a fourth-and-two at Iowa’s five-yard line with two minutes to play … the Spartans ran the option, with Cook, who is not exactly renowned for his wheels, lunging forward for the first down. The Spartans would score three plays later, as the freshman Scott reached into the end zone on a third-down run, to cap a massive 22-play drive that lasted more than nine minutes and sent them into the playoff. Not a terrific game. An epic ending.