INDIANAPOLIS — One minute into a new day for Michigan State football, LJ Scott tugged at the yellow, blue and pink strands of paper dangling off his right shoulder. These festive streamers occupied a very important spot for any player in this program: The shoulder is, after all, real estate usually reserved for The Chip, the representation of all the contrived slights and perceived affronts driving the Spartans in their work. Judging by the vaguely irritated look on Scott’s face, it was apparent the freshman tailback felt the celebratory frou-frou had been there long enough. One minute after midnight, and the player who reached for the touchdown that sent his team to a Big Ten title and the College Football Playoff was letting flimsy symbols of success float to the ground, making room for whatever will push him tomorrow.
It won’t be enough that Michigan State is a conference champion after a bracing 16–13 victory over unbeaten Iowa on Saturday. It won’t be enough that the Spartans won the league for the third time under coach Mark Dantonio on a swarthy, domineering 22-play, nine-minute, fourth-quarter drive that was almost comical in how perfectly emblematic it was of what has been built in East Lansing. It won’t be enough that Michigan State almost assuredly earned the right to pursue a national championship starting on New Year’s Eve.
It of course should be enough, in many ways. It should be enough that all this means the conversation about the nation’s best college football programs has a new entrant, that Michigan State’s standing is now explicit in that regard. That’s worth wearing the confetti failing from the sky.
It should be enough, but it won’t be, because it never is. How else would the Spartans spend the many minutes that would follow after midnight if they weren’t unsatisfied by every minute before?
“We’re at the elite status we want to be at,” Michigan State linebacker Darien Harris said. “We’re a national contender year in and year out. I think we’ve proven that. But there’s still a lot left to do. This isn’t the end-all, be-all goal. We want to take it all now.”
If we’re being honest, and if the Spartans dare to be honest with themselves, the doubts and chips were stampeded into dust across 82 yards of Lucas Oil Stadium turf late Saturday.
Michigan State has won 12 games after losing one of its best defensive players to a torn ACL in preseason camp; it has won while using six different offensive line combinations and seven different starting lineups in the secondary; it has won when it was forced to deploy two backup quarterbacks with a combined 14 pass attempts in order to beat the defending national champions on the road in November. None of it seemed as daunting as the space between the program and a playoff berth with nine and a half minutes left in the fourth quarter against the Hawkeyes, when an offense with an injured quarterback needed the touchdown it couldn’t muster all night. You have to find the inches, Dantonio often says whenever he’s discussing why some teams succeed and others fail. Now his team needed 2,952 of them in the worst way, and it damn near came by them one at a time.
“We got together and said, ‘This is it,’” left tackle Jack Conklin said. “We can win and go to the playoff, or we can go home sad.”
The Spartans began at their own 18-yard line. They ran 22 plays. Seventeen of them were rushes, 14 of which went to Scott, the 233-pound freshman. They converted five third downs overall, and one fourth down in maybe the most preposterous way imaginable. During a timeout that followed a stuffed third-and-two rush from the Iowa five-yard line, Michigan State coaches mulled their options. They arrived at one not a single soul in the building expected: an option run for Connor Cook, their pro-style quarterback with the limited wheels and a bum shoulder that was, as one staff member put it afterwards, maybe 70% healthy for the game.
Can you do this? Dantonio recalled asking Cook in the huddle.
I can get it, Cook replied.
The senior did, essentially lunging forward for the required two yards. As officials reviewed the spot of the ball, center Jack Allen looked over at Scott. There was condensation all over the freshman’s helmet visor; Scott was breathing so hard that he fogged up his own line of sight. “But he pushed through,” Allen said, almost literally correct.
Three plays after Cook’s fourth-down conversion, Allen, a 296-pounder, set up in the backfield in a jumbo set, as he had done on previous short-yardage snaps. Allen went in motion, and then Scott ran away from the movement instead of behind it, running into two Iowa defenders. He spun, just enough out of their grasp, to reach the ball out and across the goal line, with Hawkeyes defensive end Melvin Spears diving just a fraction too low to stymie Scott’s forward progress.
He had scored. Twenty-two plays. Eighty-two yards. Nine minutes and nine seconds.
“I can guarantee I’ve never had one at the end of a game like that to win a conference championship,” offensive coordinator Dave Werner said. “The magnitude of it is pretty special.”
“A 22-play drive in the fourth quarter just doesn’t happen,” linebacker Riley Bullough said. “But they made it happen.”
“We found a way,” Dantonio said.
It was utterly unbelievable, and it was so utterly Michigan State, one last imposition of the forces that brought about the game-winning fumbled punt return at Michigan and the game-winning field goal at Ohio State. Dantonio also talks to his team about maintaining its composure in the storm and then repurposing that elemental power for its own use.
“You couldn’t ask for a better way to go out,” Conklin said. “On that last drive, you saw us take over and become the storm.”
In the forecast for Dec. 31 and beyond, Michigan State will find doubts hard to come by. The offense indeed sputtered for most of the Big Ten championship game, but Cook should be in far better condition for the playoff semifinal and less prone to airmail throws he typically hits with precision. A defense wracked by injuries early on has matured and settled into a rhythm, allowing just 8.8 points per game over its last four. Against Iowa, the Spartans’ defensive line was particularly malicious, led by the marauding Shilique Calhoun, who collected three of the defensive front’s four sacks on the night. By the time New Year’s Eve arrives, basically, the Spartans should look like the team many expected might get there.
Of course, those were the expectations set before this season, after the program had won 10 or more games in four of five years. The evidence had mounted. But it was long before then that Dantonio had that vision, long before the Spartans stood on a dais Saturday night as their fans at Lucas Oil Stadium pointed to the sky and chanted “Yes! Yes! Yes!” in a full-throated, cathartic roar. Dantonio would tell you that he always thought Michigan State would get here, where it would mingle with the blue-blood programs of the sport.
He said it again, in fact, just outside the locker room in the wee hours after a championship. He remembered the date—Nov. 27, 2007—when he pledged to bring this program exactly here. “When I stood up there and made that statement, everybody scoffed,” Dantonio said. “Nobody believed.”
“The way he does things, he always has an answer,” athletic director Mark Hollis said. “You can look at him on the sideline and see the gleam in his eye. He gave me a little glance with about two minutes left in the game, and I’m like, all right, we’re good.”
There is no doubt now, of course, that Michigan State is good, no matter what Michigan State might have you think.
After Saturday, after the inexorable march of 22 plays and nine-plus minutes, after the streamers and confetti were left behind, this is one of the best programs in the country, and it will play for a national championship it very well could win.
“Here we go,” Dantonio said just before ducking into the locker room at 1:02 a.m., looking like someone happy to find a way straight through whatever comes next.