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IOWA CITY — Few games in recent Big Ten history matched both the intensity and the brute physicality as last season’s football championship game.
With the Big Ten title and a spot in the College Football Playoff at stake, divisional champions Iowa and Michigan State battled for inches rather than yards. The teams combined for 4.87 yards per play, well below the previous Big Ten championship low of 6.0. Only 14 teams last season averaged fewer yards per play for the season.
In a 60-minute fistfight, the Spartans produced an epic 22-play drive that culminated in a 3-yard touchdown run with 27 seconds left. Their 16-13 win sealed a playoff berth against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, while the Hawkeyes landed in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 25 years.
“That was a great playoff game, a playoff championship game,” Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio said.
But the teams that showed up that December night in Indianapolis never completely arrived at their bowl destinations. Alabama stiff-armed Michigan State 38-0 en route to a national title. Iowa trailed Stanford by 38 points early in the third quarter before falling 45-16. Their postseason performances hardly represented their sterling 2015 campaigns. It begs the question, did the teams weaken one another entering their bowls?
“I’ll be honest, I have thought of that a little bit,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Part of that is you talk to several people who were not necessarily emotionally tied to either program and watched the game, and I’ve never been involved in a game where so many people commented about just how intense the game was. Apparently that came across on TV. It sure felt that way on the sidelines. So that is possible.”
“I’d like to say that was the problem, but it was a month later so I’d say we were all right,” Dantonio said. “I just think both teams experienced a team playing very, very well. Things clicked for the other team and things didn’t click as well and you see the outcome. Sometimes you get hit a little bit with a wave.”
As for the players, they have given little thought to how the championship slugfest played a role in their bowl defeats.
“It was a very physical game,” Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell said. “A great game by them. But I don’t know if it really hindered the success of our next game or made us play worse.”
“That’s a big way of speculating,” Michigan State tight end Josiah Price said. “But maybe, who knows?”
Michigan State (plus-14) and Iowa (plus-11) were among the nation’s best teams in turnover margin. Each scored around 30 points a game (Iowa 30.9, MSU 29.8) and gave up about 21 (Iowa 20.8, MSU 21.7). Both stopped the run at 3.62 yards per carry. Iowa converted third downs at a 41.7 percent clip, and MSU was even better at 48.5 percent.
In the postseason, the teams were a combined minus-3 in turnovers. They totaled 77 yards rushing, with Iowa running for 1.3 yards per carry and the Spartans at 1.1. Michigan State allowed four sacks, and Iowa gave up seven. Both teams failed to convert a third of their third-down opportunities.
Big plays doomed both teams as well. Alabama connected on a 50-yard touchdown pass. Stanford tossed a 75-yard touchdown strike on the first play from scrimmage and later scores of 31 and 42 yards. The Cardinal also returned an interception 66 yards for a touchdown.
Both teams allowed punt returns for scores. Alabama’s Cyrus Jones brought one back 57 yards, and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey scored on a 63-yard return. McCaffrey totaled a Rose Bowl record 368 all-purpose yards. Alabama’s Calvin Ridley caught eight passes for 138 yards and two scores.
“It was one guy missed his assignment each and every play, and we didn’t execute our game plan the way we knew we could have,” Price said. “Walking away from that game, everyone says, ‘Oh, you got blown out 38-0 or whatever.’ I know we can play with Alabama. Easily. I walked away with confidence. The ball didn’t bounce our way a couple of times and it went all in their favor. down the stretch and it became a blowout at the very end.”
The grinding Big Ten title loss and subsequent Rose Bowl disaster has Ferentz altering his team’s future bowl plans. The Hawkeyes typically travel to their destination nine days before the game. That number will shrink.
“It’s certainly given me pause to think about ... we’ve never been involved in a championship game, playing in December, and then playing in a bowl game,” Ferentz said. “So maybe we need to re-evaluate that as part of our bowl discussion. I’m not going to use that as an alibi, but the fact that maybe we need to consider a little bit more.”