In 480 BC, a Greek army led by 300 Spartans held off a Persian army numbering in the hundreds of thousands at Thermopylae, a chokepoint along the Greek coast, for seven days. On the seventh day, the Persians found a route through the nearby mountains, allowing a portion of the Persian army to flank the Greeks. The Spartan king leading the Greek army dismissed the bulk of his army on a retreat, then stayed to fight to the death against the Persians.
I likely don't need to tell you the full story of the Spartans at Thermopylae because it has become legend. It's been used in movies, in television, and in pop culture in general for the entire lifetime of any person reading this post. The legend is not that the Spartans lost. Rather, it is that their small band of soldiers held off an overwhelming horde, then made a heroic last stand against all odds and died with honor. You already know the story, and you know the Spartans as the heroes of that legend. Odds are that, aside from the Iliad, it's virtually all you know about Sparta.
The great irony of Saturday night's Big Ten Championship Game was that it was Iowa, and not the Spartans of Michigan State, making the three-day defensive stand only to fall in the end. Iowa managed just seven minutes of offense in the second half, leaving it to the defense to block the Spartans' path for essentially the entire second half, as Michigan State threw every bit of misdirection and tactical deception in its playbook at them. For four series, the defense held. Michigan State racked up 131 yards but just six points on two field goals.
And then Michigan State found the flank, and Iowa's defense could hold no more.
The situation turned dire as Michigan State crossed midfield, making fourth down a automatic offensive play, and yet the defense tried to hold. It turned untenable as Michigan State crossed the 20 and Kirk Ferentz called his timeouts, trying to save time for his offense, and yet the defense forced Michigan State to convert a fourth-down Connor Cook option play by mere inches to stay alive. Surrender became the smart tactic after that point -- at least the offense would have a chance to respond if Michigan State was simply allowed to score -- and yet the defense tried to hold. And on the final play, the defense threw everything left at the Spartans, and it simply wasn't enough. Iowa's defense cracked, and Iowa's undefeated season died with it.
I'm not going to say that Iowa's defense is the story of the game -- it was a 22-play, nine-minute, game-winning touchdown drive to put Michigan State in the Playoff, after all -- but the Hawkeyes' defensive performance in losing did more for Iowa's credibility than any win this season. The national pundits that had been so critical of Iowa's schedule and talent before Saturday lined up to proclaim the Hawkeyes as legitimate in the aftermath of that loss.
One of the greatest drives in college football history for Sparty. Incredibly impressed with Iowa. Well done.— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) December 6, 2015
Absolutely. Hard not to admire and respect that ball club. Congrats on season and trip to Pasadena! https://t.co/YBf6f6O6Nr— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) December 6, 2015
Yea, these SEC teams are unbeatable. How can anyone think the Buckeyes/Spartans/Hawkeyes would stand a chance.— Colin Cowherd (@ColinCowherd) December 5, 2015
Iowa congrats on a great season!! Heck of a year and great fight tonight vs the Spartans! #Respect— David Pollack (@davidpollack47) December 6, 2015
"The Big Ten has been the best conference in college football this year." - @finebaum pic.twitter.com/lHQGMBbs8J— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) December 6, 2015
The last stand was so honorable that Iowa was able to do the unthinkable: Convince the College Football Playoff Committee and AP Poll voters that a one-loss team that started the season unranked was worthy of a higher placement in the polls than the preseason No. 1 team from the same conference with the same loss. Iowa somehow broke the internal logic that defaults voters toward their early prejudices. And they did it with a loss.
It's been a strange, wonderful, legendary fall for Iowa, one that will now end with a Rose Bowl Game and, if the Hawkeyes were to beat Stanford, Iowa's highest placement in the final poll in 45 years. Twelve weeks of wins generated little more than derision. A singular loss eliminated nearly all of that. And, barring a equally-legendary Rose Bowl, it's the loss -- the stand, and then the fall -- that will be remembered from 2015.
Twelve solid wins had made the Hawkeyes record breakers and division champions. One loss made them legends.