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Finally At a Loss: Iowa 37, Michigan State 6

Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong:

  • The running game continued its recent collapse, particularly in short yardage situations (33 yards on 16 carries for the three running backs; only one first down converted on a rushing play).
  • Kirk Cousins gave into his make-a-play-at-all-costs instincts, throwing three picks in the process.
  • The third down struggles continued (4 for 14).
  • The pass rush was, well, non-existent: zero sacks and zero quarterback hurries credited to MSU.
  • The defensive backs looked like they did last year--unable to make plays on the ball even when they were in position to do so.
  • The return game lacked any threat with Keshawn Martin sidelined (just 16.1 yards/return on 7 kickoff returns).
  • Penalties (7 for 63 yards) [Edit: and some suspect officiating] killed any sort of a comeback.
The cherry on top of the ineptitude sundae was the perhaps-ill-advised-but-spectacularly-successful post-interception pitch by Tyler [Insert Superfun BHGP Nickname Here] Sash that preceded the touchdown return by Micah "Not the Hyde Who Plays For Us" Hyde pictured above.  Iowa could do nothing wrong. MSU could do nothing right.

For the fourth straight week, the MSU offense came out and failed to score in the first quarter.  (Only 3 points scored in the first quarter against BCS-conference-level opposition, even counting Notre Dame, this year, believe it or not.) The previous three weeks, the Spartans were able to recover in the final three quarters of the game and get the win. The Iowa defense, led by Sash, Shaun Prater, and Adrian Clayborn, was not going to allow that to happen this week.  As dramatic as the team's progress has been since last season, this MSU team still isn't good enough to overcome a 17-point first quarter deficit against a top-15 opponent.  And nothing resembling a comeback ever materialized, as the offense never really found its footing; 8 of the team's 12 drives in the game went for less than 10 yards.
For whatever reason, the MSU offense takes 15+ minutes to find its rhythm.  As disappointing as the timing/handling of the Chris L. Rucker reinstatement was, I'm not inclined to chalk the slow start up to that distraction; the situation was probably much more a distraction for the fan base than it was for the team. (Sarcastic Rucker aside, in an attempt to get the incident out of my system: For those of us who thought Rucker should have sat out at least one game post-release--for a combination of punitive, precedent-setting, and public perception reasons--the positive spin is that he did, in effect, sit out a full game.  By the time he entered the game in the second quarter, the team was already down three scores.)  The slow offensive starts are a major concern going forward.  MSU can probably recover from a slow start against Minnesota or Purdue, but Penn State and the team's future bowl opponent may not be so congenial to a Spartan comeback.

Statistically speaking, the three MSU turnovers were 90% of the story yesterday.  Iowa actually outgained MSU by fewer than 100 yards.  And to be fair to Cousins, I thought only one of the interceptions was truly awful in terms of decision making--the second one, which was thrown across the field off his back foot on a 3rd-and-7 when MSU still had a mathematical shot at getting back into the game.  Throw it away and go for it on fourth down, darn it all, The first interception resulted from a combination of (1) a failure to see Sash, (2) a slightly underthrown pass, and (3) a great play by Sash.  If Cousins make his standard perfect throw to the sideline on that play, it probably would have been a completion, or at least a simple incompletion.  The third pick was somewhat forced, but it's the kind of pass to a tight end in a seam Cousins has converted at other times this season--and, at that point, taking a risk was the way to go anyway.

The silver lining, I suppose, is that nothing really changed about the team fundamentally.  I thought the defense actually played reasonably well.  They held the extremely elusive Adam Robinson to 3.5 yards/carry and his backup, Marcus Coker, to just 2.5 yards/carry.  MSU recorded 7 tackles for losses on 42 Iowa rushing attempts (Antonio Jeremiah sighting! Three tackles, one for a loss).  It was the early long runs by Ricky Stanzi and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos that were the killers.  The pass defense was disappointing, but Iowa also benefited from some Stanzi throws into coverage that, through some combination of great plays by receivers and plain good fortune, turned into big Hawkeye gains.

The running game continues to be a concern.  The passing game just needs to settle down.  MSU receivers, including the taking-full-advantage-of-his-opportunity Bennie Fowler, continue to make tough catches in tight space.

From a fundamental ability standpoint, this MSU team was never a top-five team (which takes nothing away from the results the team posted through 8 games; the good luck counts just as much as the bad does).  It would have been nice not to have that demonstrated in such a stark fashion, though.  A less decisive loss would have been better for both bowl positioning and the team's psyche.

Still: 8-1.  The "1" hurt a lot, killing whatever BCS Title Game hopes the team had.  (And, for me, having any nonzero chance of getting to the BCS Title Game past the halfway mark of the season was an exciting experience).  The "8," however, means there's still a lot of very meaningful Spartan football to be played this year. No "on to basketball season" this year--even for me.  SpartanDan's updated projections have MSU with an 87% shot at taking home at least a share of the Big Ten title and a 42%+ chance of making the trip to Pasadena. MSU no longer controls its own destiny, but the words "Rose Bowl" are still in the mix of those potential destinies.  That's quite a bit of something left to play/root for.