Sometime shortly after 11 p.m. last Saturday night, the mood started to change in East Lansing. Inside Harper’s brewpub, on the edge of the downtown area, the 500-plus Michigan State fans had come to the consensus that this was it.
Having cheered as much as three field goals and a steady diet of light beers would allow, they were ready for a reason to get rowdy. When freshman running back LJ Scott crashed through the Iowa line for six yards to start the drive there were still more than nine minutes left in the game, but the cheers erupted anyway. They were like a distant train whistle warning an opponent tied to the tracks. There was still time to struggle, but eventually the train would arrive. The green-and-white mob started its crescendo. They knew what was coming, they had seen it before.
Twenty-two plays and 82 yards later, Scott finished running over the Iowa Hawkeyes to give his Spartans a 16-13 lead and a ticket to the College Football Playoff.
"It was crazy, man," he said after the game. "The fact that they were counting on me and giving me the ball, I definitely wanted it. I definitely tried to get it each time."
The rookie said he was surprised when his number kept coming up in the huddle. Given Michigan State’s history this season, he shouldn’t have been. The final drive of the Big Ten Championship Game might have been the defining moment of a memorable season, but only because it reflected so much of what the team had already done.
The first signs came on a sweltering Friday night in Kalamazoo, Michigan. When the Spartans needed a drive to bury a pesky Western Michigan team, Mark Dantonio turned to Scott in his college debut. Scott broke free for 17 yards to start that possession. He would carry it five more times in the next seven plays to get his team down to the 4-yard line. On third down, Dantonio opted to throw for the end zone. They missed. Michigan State settled for a field goal that nonetheless sealed the game, but they wouldn’t make the same mistake with a championship at stake three months later.
Michigan State rotated its running backs throughout the season, but when in a tight spot they routinely called on Scott. Tied with Rutgers in the fourth quarter, Scott took the field to start a game-winning drive that would cover 76 yards in 10 plays. He carried the ball six times then, including a three-yard plunge into the end zone with less than a minute to play.
Again at Ohio State, tied with the Buckeyes in the closing minutes, it was Scott who carried the team into position for Michael Geiger's dramatic field goal. The last five plays from scrimmage in that were hand-offs to Scott, including a third-and-2 conversion in which he spun away from an Ohio State linebacker to get across the line. Two weeks later, he would make almost the same move to reach the end zone against Iowa.
"When I saw LJ Scott breaking like three tackles every single run I said, 'We’re going to keep giving it to him,'" quarterback Connor Cook told reporters after the game. "He was juking guys, bouncing off guys, dragging guys. Watching that I was thinking, 'Why not keep feeding the beast?'"
It wasn’t just Scott who was evoking reminders of the path Michigan State took to get to that final drive.
There was a receiver stepping out of bounds before catching a crucial pass. The referees called a penalty on Aaron Burbridge's catch (another acrobatic highlight of a grab). Against Nebraska, in a 39-38 loss to the Cornhuskers, a similar call went the other way. Both provided significant setbacks for the Spartans to overcome.
There were the injuries, too. Cook made a fourth-down lunge to keep the drive alive, leading with the shoulder that had slowed him down through most of November. Right tackle Kodi Kieler cramped up during the drive, only to hobble back onto the field against the sideline’s wishes to finish the game. Fullback Trevon Pendleton threw a key block on Scott’s touchdown despite playing with a slight tear in his MCL.
Center Jack Allen lined up in the backfield on that last play. The fifth-year senior had to block from several different spots this season because injuries chewed up the offensive line.
"Nothing that we've got has ever been given to us," Allen said a day later. "We've had to fight through adversity, fight through hard times, and we've earned everything we've gotten. We just showed again last night nothing is ever given to you. You've got to go out there and earn it.
"No matter what the score is, no matter what the circumstance is. We're going to go out there and play, and if we've got to go 22 plays, we're going to go 22. If we've got to go 30, we're going to go 30."