Good old-fashioned football is alive and well in the Big Ten.
With the Big Ten champion now ticketed for the College Football Playoff, any opponent better be ready for a heavyweight prize fight when the league sends Michigan State out for a battle with the national title on the line.
Both the No. 5 Spartans and No. 4 Iowa Hawkeyes went the distance while trading vicious punches, unleashing dominant defenses and putting on a vintage display of the conference’s trademark physical brand of football on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Ultimately, the game showed that approach can also supply maximum drama, with a spot in the College Football Playoff coming down to a red zone war settled in the trenches. Michigan State fought for the final yard that made the difference in a 16-13 victory.
Michigan State didn’t find the end zone for more than 59 minutes, but extra effort from LJ Scott on his rush from the 1-yard line in the closing seconds nudged the Spartans ahead of Iowa and into position to compete for the national title. For the Spartans, there was nothing ugly about the way they won in the clutch again in a season that will forever be known for late-game theatrics.
What the wins means for Michigan State: Nothing ever seems to come easily for the Spartans, but Mark Dantonio’s program reached down deep to propel itself to the higher level it has been chasing. There was a hiccup against Nebraska and plenty of adversity thrown its way during four hard-fought quarters against Iowa, but Michigan State made the plays it needed to down the stretch and has unquestionably earned a spot in the College Football Playoff. Now the real fun begins for the Spartans, who can put that chip back on their shoulder and go to work on the biggest stage in the sport.
What the loss means for Iowa: The regular season was perfect, but that’s where the dream ended for the Hawkeyes. A gritty, physical performance against the Spartans proved Iowa deserved to be in the playoff mix and still ranks among the nation’s best teams, but the loss could potentially drop the program all the way to the Fiesta Bowl if the selection committee elevates Ohio State past the Hawkeyes. Either way, Iowa is headed to a New Year’s Six destination, which was almost impossible to envision back in August.
Player of the game: When he’s motivated and locked in mentally, there aren’t many defensive linemen in the nation who can impact a game quite like Shilique Calhoun can. The Michigan State veteran was largely an afterthought in the conversation about the Big Ten’s best defenders this season, but he delivered on a big stage with a dominant performance that included a pair of sacks and a regular presence in the Iowa backfield. With some talented quarterbacks looming in the College Football Playoff, Calhoun will continue to be critically important for the Spartans moving into the postseason.
How the game was won: Toughness, endurance and iron will. It wasn’t enough to bounce back from a couple hard hits in what turned out to be an absolute slugfest. Although neither side really ever wore down, Michigan State was the last one standing. Everybody on the field will be covered in bruises and sore when the postseason plans are revealed Sunday. The heavyweight fight and dramatic final drive settled with some violent short-yardage plays were a fitting end to a season that proved an old-school approach can still get the job done in the Big Ten.