9:31 remaining. 1st and 10, Michigan State 18. LJ Scott run for 6 yards
For more than 50 minutes, No. 4 Iowa has given No. 5 Michigan State nothing. The Hawkeyes lead 13-9, and are a little less than 10 minutes from a Big Ten championship and a shot at their first national title since the 1950s. But Michigan State had made its season on thrilling win after thrilling win.
8:50 remaining. 2nd and 4, Michigan State 24. Connor Cook pass incomplete to MacGarrett Kings, Jr.
With nine minutes to go, there's typically enough time for one team to score, the other team to score, and the first team to score again. Heck, when a team scores a go-ahead touchdown with 90 seconds left, we scream, "YOU CAN'T LEAVE THAT MUCH TIME!"
8:39 remaining. 3rd and 4, Michigan State 24. Connor Cook pass complete to Josiah Price for 13 yards. Michigan State first down.
Michigan State took the timeline we normally use to watch football and bent it to its will. The Spartans held the ball for 9:04. They ran 22 plays, the most plays of any drive by any team in the 2015 season. (It would've been the longest in the 2014 season, too, according to ESPN.)
"I didn't know. I heard the number after it was over. It felt like 22," Michigan State center Jack Allen said after the game. One of the first players mobbed by media in the open locker room, Allen stopped questions to ask if he could sit down. He was obliged.
8:15 remaining. 1st and 10, Michigan State 37. Connor Cook pass complete to MacGarrett Kings for 4 yards.
The Spartans didn't set out on this epic journey looking to kill Iowa. They just wanted to survive.
You can tell by the playcalls, like this pass to Macgarrett Kings Jr. This play isn't about bleeding the clock. This is just about finding any way to move the ball on an Iowa defense that hadn't let them move all night.
Burbridge said that during "The Drive," co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner's emphasis on the called pass plays was just to hit first downs and not stretch for game-breakers if the window wasn't there.
"Ball control, chain moving, same as the run game. Michigan State football."
"Obviously I wasn't 100 percent," quarterback Connor Cook said in the postgame news conference. He finished 16-of-32 with one INT. His arm was supposed to be the answer to Iowa's rush defense, ranked 11th nationally in the S&P+. But Cook's injured shoulder looked to be affecting his touch and accuracy at times.
"Hey, y'all saw him throwing the ball. You tell me. He made the throws," wide receiver Aaron Burbridge said after the game.
7:55 remaining. 2nd and 6, Michigan State 41. LJ Scott run for 3 yards. Offensive holding.
Michigan State's previous longest drive of the evening was 47 yards. All Michigan State had to show were three field goals. They doinked a field goal and missed another.
"Maybe people don't see us blowing teams out. At the end of the day, I would tell people to watch each play," offensive lineman Donavon Clark said. "See how this defender is getting blown off the ball. See how this guy can catch and run. See what we do each play. Don't look at it as how many points we scored."
7:15 remaining.2nd and 13, Michigan State 34. RJ Shelton run for 10 yards.
Iowa was set to win on the strength of a single play. C.J. Beathard's 85-yard touchdown pass to Tevaun Smith was the only touchdown for either team and the longest play of Iowa's season. A game defined by stalwart defense was set to be defined by a single coverage failure.
6:44 remaining. 3rd and 3, Michigan State 44. LJ Scott run for 4 yards. Michigan State 1st down.
Michigan State prods and searches for ways to beat Iowa's defense. They can't find anything big. They dink, and they dunk, and they crash into Iowa as hard as they can.
6:09 remaining. 1st and 10, Michigan State 48. LJ Scott run for 2 yards.
But Iowa is not breaking.
5:40 remaining. 2nd and 8, 50-yard line. Connor Cook pass incomplete.
In football, you're eventually going to have to give that ball up. There are loopholes like onside kicks, but for the most part, both teams are going to touch the ball the same amount of times. Therefore, the winner is the team that makes the most of its possessions.
That's why we often laugh at the Big Ten and its puntastic ways. Its coaches frequently are willing to give opponents the ball for free.
5:19 remaining. 3rd and 8, 50-yard-line. Connor Cook pass complete to Aaron Burbridge for 16 yards.
The Spartans spit on this reputation. They refuse to relinquish the ball. They will hold onto the ball until they're in the end zone. They will hold onto this ball until they're on a podium accepting a Big Ten championship, guaranteed a Playoff spot.
Michigan State faces six third downs on one drive, six opportunities for the drive to halt.
4:59 remaining. 1st and 10, Iowa 34. Connor Cook runs for 7 yards.
Jon Bois once imagined a world without end zones, in which a team could freely advance a ball 10 yards at a time until it reached the ends of the earth.
4:25 remaining, Iowa 27. 2nd and 3 LJ Scott run for 3 yards. Michigan State first down.
The Hawkeyes should be glad they do not live in this world. Lucas Oil Stadium is oriented slightly north-by-northeast, toward East Lansing.
3:59 remaining, Iowa 24. 1st and 10 LJ Scott runs for 3 yards.
Somewhere around here, the Spartans begin to take the clock into consideration. Considering they hadn't hit a big play all night and were moving the ball methodically, there wouldn't be time for an additional scoring drive. They have to get a go-ahead score here.
3:29 remaining, Iowa 21. 2nd and 7. LJ Scott runs for 6 yards.
That meant they have to get their ETA in the end zone as close to 0:00 as possible, to limit Iowa's scoring chances. Cook has thrown his last pass. This game is on MSU's running game.
2:48 remaining, Iowa 15. 3rd and 1. LJ Scott runs for 2 yards. Michigan State first down
LJ Scott is a freshman at a school that doesn't play a lot of true freshmen. But with Jeremy Langford off to the NFL, Michigan State needed a running back, and Scott ended up getting the most carries this season.
2:15 remaining, Iowa 13. 1st and 10. LJ Scott runs for 3 yards.
It's hard to watch Scott and not think of Le'Veon Bell, the 6'2, 220-pound back who went from being the Spartans' bellcow to the top pick in most fantasy drafts.
2:09 remaining, Iowa 10. 2nd and 7. LJ Scott runs for 5 yards.
Scott might be a true freshman, but he's 6', 233, and fast. He didn't need to learn how to barrel through these defenders.
2:04 remaining, Iowa 5. 3rd and 2. LJ Scott runs for no gain.
The Hawkeyes use their last timeout. They've been run more than eight minutes, but a stop here, and they win. Michigan State needs four points and can't kick a field goal.
The Spartans go jumbo, 10 guys within a few yards of the ball. They only have one wide receiver, and that wide receiver is a fullback.
1:54 remaining, Iowa 5. 4th and 2. Connor Cook runs for 2 yards. Michigan State first down.
Michigan State runs a speed option with Cook. He runs to the outside, and Iowa had enough guys ready for an epic clash in the trenches that Cook has room on the outside.
1:31 remaining, Iowa 3. 1st and goal. LJ Scott runs for 2 yards.
This drive might mean nothing without such a worthy opponent. If Iowa lets MSU steamroll into the end zone, it would have a better shot at winning. If Michigan State scored in seven minutes instead of nine, the Hawkeyes would've had time to mount a scoring drive of their own.
:56 remaining, Iowa 1. 2nd and goal. LJ Scott runs for no gain.
But the Hawkeyes never stopped fighting. They have been pushed for eight minutes, yet they're still fighting for every inch, because they think they can stop Michigan State. They almost do.
:27 remaining, Iowa 1. 3rd and goal. LJ Scott runs for 1 yard. Touchdown.
* * *
"We were bummed [after the Nebraska loss] but still felt confident that if we won out, if we beat Ohio State and then won here, that we'd have a chance. It might be tougher if you win ugly, but I think it's tough for any team to stay on top in college football," tight end Josiah Price said.
And yet ...
"Oh yeah, I do feel like we get disrespected. But that's why we play like we do, going out there with a chip on our shoulder like we got something to prove," Burbridge said. "Why? You tell me. I have no idea."
Burbridge stood answering questions as players ran out of the showers, screaming "305!" in reference to Miami, a possible Playoff spot for MSU. If the Spartans are in the Orange Bowl, it's likely MSU will face undefeated Clemson, the No. 1 seed entering the final week.
"Doesn't matter. Michigan State football, we don't care. We don't care who we play or where. Honestly."
Photos by Getty and USA Today.