IOWA CITY, Iowa — This was all about payback for Michigan State. No one from East Lansing would say so before kickoff. But there was no denying the laser focus Michigan State carried into today’s game. The Spartans wanted to send a message to Iowa.
That was one reason why Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio denied media access to his players this season.
No outside noise.
Just focus. And the message was received loud and clear in a 37-21 victory that really wasn’t even that close.
“I think you’ve got to come in mentally ready and you have to bring your emotions with you,” said Dantonio. “I think that’s what you have to do. However it happens, it just happens.
“We talked about either being the storm or weathering the storm. We didn’t know which was going to happen. But we were going to have to be prepared for each, and that’s what we did.”
Mission accomplished, in what was the Spartans’ first win at Iowa since 1989.
Now, Michigan State is the driver’s seat in the Legends Division with an 8-2 overall mark and 5-1 record in the Big Ten. Every other team in division has at least two losses. If the Spartans win out vs. Indiana and at Northwestern, they will clinch the division.
But if they go 1-1, and Nebraska wins out, the Cornhuskers would take the Legends Division based on their win over Michigan State earlier this season.
“Obviously we’re disappointed to lose the ballgame today,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “But our congratulations go to Michigan State. They were a lot more ready to play than we were.”
This was a Michigan State team that still was smarting from last year’s 37-6 loss at Iowa. It hadn’t forgotten that beating.
The Spartans entered that game in 2010 with an 8-0 mark and ranked No. 5 in the nation. Michigan State was thinking big, dreaming about its first trip to the Rose Bowl since the 1987 season when Percy Snow and Bobby McAllister led the Spartans to Pasadena.
But the Hawkeyes embarrassed Michigan State, 37-6. The Spartans never established the run on that day, gaining just 31 yards on the ground. That put too much pressure on quarterback Kirk Cousins, who tossed three picks.
The loss not only was embarrassing. But it also was the Spartans’ lone defeat in the regular season, costing them an out right Big Ten title.
And when it came time to hand out bowl bids, Michigan State was passed over for a spot in the BCS, watching fellow tri-champs Wisconsin (Rose) and Ohio State (Sugar) grab more prestigious destinations while the Spartans were sent to the Capital One Bowl.
Bottom line: Michigan State still hasn’t been to a BCS bowl in the BCS era. The only other Big Ten teams that also haven’t are Northwestern, Indiana and Minnesota.
How much angst did Michigan State have left from last year’s drubbing in Kinnick? Leading 31-7 early in the third quarter, the Spartans executed a fake field-goal attempt to keep a drive alive.
Was it REALLY necessary? Regardless, it sent a message about how badly Michigan State wanted to win.
“We run a lot of them, I think,” said Dantonio. “I tend to think we do maybe a little too much. We felt the time was right. It’s a long field goal. Time was right. We just sort of said ‘why not?’ “
Indeed, why not? Michigan State could do no wrong on this day.
This was the best Michigan State has looked all season, which surprised some because the Spartans entered the game on a bit of a down turn, in particular the defense. They allowed 415 yards last week in an unimpressive 31-24 win over Minnesota. And that continued a recent trend.
In the three games leading up to this visit to Iowa, Michigan State had allowed an average of 26.3 points, 176.7 rushing yards and 376.0 yards per game but still paced the Big Ten in total defense (249.4 ypg) and was second in scoring defense (16.0 ppg).
The offense has been spotty most of the season. The biggest issue has been the ground game, which has been inconsistent. Much of that has had to do with a line that has started three different centers and five different configurations. The result: A rushing attack that entered today’s game ranked last in the Big Ten (130.3 ypg).
But Michigan State rolled today on the ground, running 40 times for 155 yards. Coming into today, running back Edwin Baker had been struggling, fumbling in three of the past four games and losing his starting job to Le’Veon Bell. But Baker (51 yards) looked good in concert with Bell (112).
Maybe the Spartans’ struggles of late were a hangover from that rugged October, when Michigan State played at Ohio State (win), vs. Michigan (win), vs. Wisconsin (win) and at Nebraska (loss). No school has endured a more daunting stretch of games, so maybe it’s understandable for the Spartans to feel a little sluggish deep into the season.
“I thought we were able to run the football more effectively,” said Dantonio. “Le’Veon, great plays. I thought Edwin ran very well, powerful runs. I thought they ran with a mission in mind. It’s all encompassing. Our team has to do this all together or it doesn’t work.”
Conversely, Michigan State’s defense sat on the vaunted Iowa rushing attack by limiting Marcus Coker to 57 yards rushing (2.7 ypc). He entered the game as the Big Ten’s top rusher.
“They did a good job of taking our run away from us,” said Ferentz. “We never got any rhythm going at all. Marcus, I don’t think he had a chance to get started. Credit goes to them. They
really did a great job.”
Michigan State had all types of rhythm today from the opening kickoff, racing to a 14-0 lead and never looking back as every aspect was clicking for Michigan State. The Spartans finished with 443 yards of offense, with Kirk Cousins hitting 18-of-31 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.
“We’ve been hunted the last two years here,” said Dantonio, whose defense held Iowa to 349 yards and forced three turnovers. “I think that’s something that we need to understand, that we are a program now that people are hunting down. Last year, we were undefeated when we walked in here … . To push through this year after the discouragement last year is a sign of progress and a sign of maturity.”
And a sign that perhaps bigger things may be looming for this Michigan State team.