Iowa and Michigan State played to a virtual deadlock on Saturday. The teams were so evenly matched that the result only essentially flipped their rankings, and one could argue that had the balance of luck shifted ever so slightly, Iowa would be there in the Playoff instead of Sparty.
What Michigan State had that Iowa didn't—and needed—was a stopper. In this specific instance, we mean Shilique Calhoun, but you can't blame a team for not having a three-time all-conference DE of their own; not even Bama or Clemson does. But just in general, Calhoun fits the role that Dantonio has had often, of the singular massive force on defense that offenses must gameplan around, that they cannot assume they can neutralize with just a one-on-one matchup. Calhoun wrecked Iowa drives, plural, and Iowa didn't have anybody like that on Saturday. And that, friends, is why Michigan State was able to unload a 22-play, game-eating drive to win the championship.
You could argue that Drew Ott was supposed to fit into that role this season. We won't argue otherwise. Nate Meier was that dude at times in Ott's absence, but he was nowhere near 100% in this game. Desmond King, sure, but he's a cornerback; he's directly involved in only a handful of plays per game. That's sort of how it goes.
And more importantly, we can't assume any of those guys will be around next season. So if Iowa wants to make this trip to Indianapolis more than a fluke, more than a hiccup of success on the road of Insight and Foster Farms Bowls, Iowa's going to need that someone who can totally and completely impose his will on an opposing offense.
Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson are both young, but promising. Jaleel Johnson has some potential. Josey Jewell, perhaps, or maybe even Miles Taylor. You could convince me that one of those guys will be that terrifying, all-consuming defensive force as early as the 2016 season.
But the reality is that none of them are there yet, and though Iowa was able to avoid any reckoning for that down the stretch, when an opponent finally had the opportunity to win or tie the game with their last possession against this defense, Iowa couldn't get that one stop.
One player isn't the difference between an awful season and a great one. But it just so happened to be the difference between 12-1 and 13-0, and that difference is one hell of a thing. And if we want Iowa back here next season, to be able to climb this mountain and plant that black and gold flag at the top, we'll need a stopper. The only question is who exactly that'll be.
So doesn't Iowa have a phrase for that? Ah yes: next man in.