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Behind the Scenes of Michigan State's Epic Drive to Beat Iowa

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If, eons from now, a time capsule were found buried somewhere in the American Midwest with the words “BIG TEN FOOTBALL OFFENSE” on it, one could argue that Michigan State’s game-winning drive against Iowa in the league championship last December would be the only film necessary for future generations to understand the ethos of B1G ball.

“Hey I’ll take a touchdown on the first play. I don’t think that any offensive coach would design a drive like this,” MSU co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman says with a laugh. “But give credit to Iowa. It happened the way it did because of their defense playing so well to prevent the big, explosive plays.”

It’s easy to point to running back LJ Scott’s 40 yards on 14 carries as the signature effort: Once MSU found itself deep in Iowa territory, Connor Cook would only touch the ball to hand it off (except for one game-winning conversion, but we’ll get to that later).

As Bollman outlines below, Sparty started the drive with one philosophy and ended with an entirely different style of play-calling. And the difference in that sea change would come on a pass play following a penalty, not one of Scott’s nail-in-the-coffin runs.

PLAY 1

1st and 10 at MSU 18

LJ Scott run for 6 yds.

The Spartans’ first play is a tone-setter for what’s to come: Scott goes off-tackle to the right side and pushes forward for extra yardage.

PLAY 2

2nd and 4 at MSU 24

Cook pass incomplete to Macgarrett Kings Jr.

PLAY 3

3rd and 4 at MSU 24

Cook pass complete to Josiah Price for 13 yds.

There are any number of keys to sustaining a 22-play drive, but Bollman harps on the execution of third-down play-calling. Predicting that Cook will drop back in the pocket, Iowa brings pressure from the outside. Instead he flicks a shovel pass inside to Price, who scoots past a wall of linemen for a big gain. Everyone is where they need to be, everyone executes.

“Thirteen yards on that call — that’s not an explosive play, that’s a shovel pass to a tight end,” Bollman says. “That was a timely call from our staff and great protection at the line of scrimmage.”

PLAY 4

1st and 10 at MSU 37

Cook pass complete to Kings Jr. for 4 yds.

PLAY 5

2nd and 6 at MSU 41

(7:55 left in 4th)

LJ Scott run for 3 yds.

Penalty, Offensive Holding (Jack Conklin)

PLAY 6

2nd and 13 at MSU 34

R.J. Shelton run for 10 yds.

Michigan State sees its first of two penalties on the drive. Both times Sparty responds with big-play yardage — the reverse to Shelton is called specifically because of the long yardage situation, and it catches Iowa looking downfield.

PLAY 7

3rd and 3 at MSU 44

Scott run for 4 yds.

After two plays — a Wildcat rush and a direct-snap reverse — with Cook away from the ball, MSU wants Iowa to think that Cook will pass on third-and-short. He instead gives to Scott, who extends for the first down after a huge block by Conklin.

PLAY 8

1st and 10 at MSU 48

Scott run for 2 yds.

PLAY 9

2nd and 8 at 50

Cook pass incomplete to Burbridge

Penalty, Illegal Touching (Burbridge) to the 50-yard line.

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PLAY 10

3rd and 8 at 50

Cook pass complete to Burbridge for 16 yds.

Facing its longest third-down conversion, Michigan State calls one of Cook’s comfort food plays, a pass tree that puts Aaron Burbridge on a stop route down the sideline. MSU gets what it wants — single-man coverage with the safety too far to close — and Burbridge keeps a toe in bounds. But there’s a flag: Burbridge had previously stepped out of bounds. It’s illegal touching; MSU will have to replay the down.

“What we got next was just a giant, giant play,” Bollman says.

Undaunted, another one of Cook’s favorites is called. This time, Scott is motioned out of the backfield and next to Burbridge. This requires Iowa to bring a man over, and Burbridge splits the defenders on a streak, catching a perfect pass from Cook. “The motion was probably unique to that, but the play is something we’d run in similar situations throughout the year,” Bollman says.

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The play converts a third down and crosses deep enough into Hawkeye territory to change the entire complexion of the drive — and the game.

“You’re always trying to score, obviously, but when the drive starts with about nine minutes, you’re trying to figure out how many more chances you’re going to get with your defense playing great. But then all of a sudden, you’re at the 50. I remember when we crossed midfield, there was a feeling of ‘Hey, this is it.’”

PLAY 11

1st and 10 at IOWA 34

Connor Cook run for 7 yds.

PLAY 12

2nd and 3 at IOWA 27

Scott run for 3 yds.

After Cook scrambles out of bounds under pressure, Michigan State is inside the Iowa 30 with its best momentum of the game. The only issue is the clock: At 4:58 remaining Sparty needs to grind, but down four they can’t afford to stall out and kick.

PLAY 13

1st and 10 at IOWA 24

Scott run for 3 yds.

PLAY 14

2nd and 7 at IOWA 21

Scott run for 6 yds.

PLAY 15

3rd and 1 at IOWA 15

Scott run for 2 yds.

At this point, Scott and the offensive line have taken over the game, and Iowa’s hopes of a stop are bleeding out at a slow, deliberate pace.

“If you look past the third downs I think the next thing that jumps out is how consistent we ran the ball at that moment,” Bollman says. “It was better than we had all day, and that was the best thing that we could ask for. The ideal thing happened, and we knew that if we could get in the end zone and limit their time with the ball, we could win the game.”

PLAY 16

1st and 10 at IOWA 13

Scott run for 3 yds.

Timeout IOWA, clock 02:09

“Now the goal was to get it into the end zone on the ground. Don’t throw it again, move the clock. We started to feel like we could do that the way we were running it. OK, we’d hit the big one to Burbridge. Run it in. Don’t throw it again.”

PLAY 17

2nd and 7 at IOWA 10

Scott run for 5 yds.

Timeout IOWA, clock 02:04

Michigan State hasn’t seen the end zone all night, but a fearful Iowa is now forced to start burning timeouts as the two-minute mark approaches. Sparty has chewed up 2:56 on just 14 yards — the play-calling holds zero intent of deception, and it becomes a battle of wills in the running game.

“That’s us at the top of our game. When we’re doing things right, that’s Michigan State offense. We’ve been really high in time of possession over the last few seasons. We pride ourselves in that. It’s been special for us,” Bollman says.

PLAY 18

3rd and 2 at IOWA 5

Scott run for no gain.

Timeout IOWA, clock 01:59.

As MSU draws closer to the goal, they go as jumbo as possible, turning center Jack Allen into a motion lead back to block for Scott. This isn’t the first time — Allen scored a touchdown earlier in the year vs. Penn State.

Between first-down conversions, Iowa timeouts and mandatory commercial breaks, the drive becomes very, very choppy for both teams. There are frequent stoppages of play. “You can look at both sides of that as advantage, but I think in that particular instance it was good for us because it gave our offensive linemen a rest. You can say it gave the defense the same rest, but with 22 plays of grinding it, that’s very, very different for players. You don’t condition for 22-play drives.”

PLAY 19

4th and 2 at IOWA 5

Cook run for 2 yds.

Scott running inside wasn’t broke, so Sparty didn’t fix it. When Iowa did manage a third-down stop, Cook was tabbed as the runner because of how much the Hawkeye defensive ends were cheating to Scott. MSU had practiced option plays for Cook earlier in the week, and when the end followed the pitch man, Cook had enough space to convert.

PLAY 20

1st and Goal at IOWA 3

Scott run for 2 yds.

PLAY 21

2nd and Goal at IOWA 1

Scott run for no gain.

Timeout MSU, clock 00:33

PLAY 22

Touchdown

“I think it’s fair to say that it was two different drives — before midfield and after,” Bollman says. “It was matter of purpose and attitude. We were focused on running that clock down, we really were. That’s not to say that in any of plays if a guy breaks a tackle and gets in the end zone you take that, but we were fortunate in the way it worked out.”

– By Steven Godfrey