Michigan State’s defense is the real deal. And the Spartans showed they can play a little offense, too.
Beating the Iowa football team in all three facets Saturday, Michigan State abruptly ended the Hawkeyes’ four-game winning streak with a dominant performance at Kinnick Stadium.
The Spartans out-gained Iowa 412-264, held the Hawkeyes’ top-flight rushing attack to just 23 yards and controlled the line of scrimmage for all but 6 minutes during a 26-14 victory.
“I just thought it was a great team win for our football team and we saw some outstanding things,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “We were tough to run the ball against, maybe that was an understatement, and we came up with two big turnovers at the right times.”
All 14 of Iowa’s points came during the final 6 minutes of the first half. Before that, Michigan State’s top-ranked defense held the Hawkeyes to just 21 yards and zero first downs in their first five possessions.
The second half was much of the same as Iowa gained just 104 yards in the final two quarters.
“We knew it was going to be a tough challenge. We weren't naïve to that by any stretch,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz on the Spartans’ dominant defensive effort. “We were hoping that we could run it effectively. The way they're built they make it very difficult to do that, and they're playing good team defense, period.”
Spartan quarterback Connor Cook came into the game with just 411 passing yards to his name. Before the final seconds had ticked away Saturday, the sophomore signal caller threw for a career-high 277 yards and two scores. He hooked up with Macgarrett Kings on a 46-yard touchdown strike in the first quarter to make it 10-0, and then found Bennie Fowler for a 37-yard score early in the third quarter that ended up being the game-winner.
Freshman kicker Michael Geiger booted four field goals in the victory as well and the Spartans were able to wash away the bad taste they had in their mouth after the loss to Notre Dame a few weeks prior.
“To hold a powerful Iowa offense to just 23 yards rushing is incredible,” said Cook. “We as an offense feel like if we score three touchdowns were are going to win. We didn’t score three touchdowns today, but we feel like our team can hold the opponent to under 17 points every game. We expect to win when they do that.”
The Spartans also executed a fake punt to perfection to make it a two-score game in the fourth quarter.
On fourth and seven from their own 37-yard line, Dantonio dialed up a fake punt and punter Mike Sadler sprinted 25 yards to keep the drive alive. They settled for a Geiger 49-yard field goal but that made it 23-14 with 13:28 play in the game. Geiger’s 40-yarder 7 minutes later put the Hawkeyes even further out of reach.
“It’s all about timing and execution,” Dantonio said of his decision to call a fake punt. “We just felt like we had the time and that it was the right moment to do it. I just wanted our players to know that they’re aggressive on the football field and sometimes coaches need to take a risk too.”
It was the seventh time an opponent has attempted a fake punt against Iowa since 2010. All seven tries were successful and led to first downs.
“We may never try to return one again,” Ferentz said. “It was our thinking -- try and get to the return, and to their credit they made a good call and that cost us a field goal. In theory you have it defended, but if you've got guys turning and blocking, set up a return, you're vulnerable. It's one of those things where maybe you can't. It worked pretty good two weeks ago, and we paid for it today.”
To add injury to insult, seven Iowa players went down with injuries. Mark Weisman, Dominic Alvis, Christian Kirksey and Kevonte Martin-Manley all suffered undisclosed injuries and did not return. Brandon Scherff, Carl Davis and James Morris also left the game with injuries but eventually returned to the field.
“The bad news is we certainly had a lot of guys that had to come out of the game, but the good news is it looks like everything is pretty minor,” Ferentz said “Hopefully the bye week probably comes at a good time. Hopefully all those guys will be back full speed.”
Iowa sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock finished 26-of-46 for 241 yards and two touchdowns but he also threw two interceptions. He completed 11 straight passes during Iowa’s two scoring drives late in the second quarter.
The Hawkeyes registered their initial first down with just less than 6 minutes to go in the half and then Rudock slipped a pass to Damon Bullock in the flat and the junior tailback sprinted 47 yards for the score.
After holding down the Spartans offense, Iowa got the ball back and put up another touchdown in the 2-minute offense. This time, Rudock ended the drive with a 10-yard touchdown strike to C.J. Fiedorowicz with 1:10 to play until halftime.
“First of all we missed a tackle on the corner blitz,” Dantonio said. “We missed a tackle and he split us. They have good players. Bullock is a good player. They split the defense and got a big play.
“We did a great job adjusting at halftime. Our coaches always do. It’s pretty unique because we’ve been together for so long, that when something is broke we can adjust and we can fix it. But really it was just about us playing better in those situations.”
The Spartans played much better in those situations in the second half and outscored the Hawkeyes 16-0 in the final two quarters.
The biggest score of them all came on the MSU’s initial possession of the third quarter. The Spartans marched 75 yards in seven plays and Cook hooked up with Fowler on the go-ahead touchdown. Fowler finished with 92 receiving yards on nine catches, while Kings hauled in five passes for 94 yards.
“That was a statement drive for us,” said Cook. “We showed them that we were here to play and weren’t going to back down. Our play-action was working well and we took what they gave us. We executed well on first down, third down and in the play-action passes, and this performance is a big confidence booster for us.”
Iowa rushed just 16 times in the game and gained only 23 yards after totaling at least 200 rushing yards in each of its first five games. Weisman ran seven times for nine yards. Rudock’s 11 yards on three carries led the way for the Hawkeyes on the ground.
Tevaun Smith had a break-out game for Iowa with Martin-Manley sidelined with an injury. The sophomore had 59 yards on six catches, while Bullock added 71 yards and five catches.
“As an offense, we just have to make more plays,” said Fiedorowicz, who had three catches for 21 yards and a touchdown. “It really hurt us that we couldn’t run the ball today. They are the No. 1 defense in the country but we still need to put up more yards than we did.”
The Iowa defense was on the field for 15 more minutes than the Iowa offense. James Morris had an another great game, finishing with a game-high 12 tackles and also had his third interception of the season. Anthony Hitchens also had 12 tackles, while freshman cornerback Desmond King finished with 11. … Darquez Dennard led the Spartan defense with eight tackles and two interceptions. Rudock took full responsibility for the picks. “They were just bad balls,” Rudock said. “We were trying to make plays. I have to make better balls. Those are on me. We just didn’t execute. MSU did what they do. We just needed to execute the offense better.” … Like Iowa’s punt team, Cook had no idea the fake punt was coming when it did. “I didn’t even know that was going to happen,” said Cook. “We would have liked to have gotten more than three out of it, but it was perfect timing and a perfect call by our coaches.” … Iowa will take this loss into its first bye week. The Hawkeyes return to action in two weeks to face nationally ranked Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio.