The MSU program under Mark Dantonio was at a bit of a crossroads.
The offense was dreadful for a calendar year, save for a performance against an FCS team. Kirk Ferentz had a 4-2 record against Mark Dantonio, and MSU had won once in Iowa City since 1989.
MSU moved the ball early, getting inside Iowa's 25-yard line, but they turned it over on downs and missed a field goal, and it looked like the Notre Dame game all over again. But they drove 48 yards for a field goal on the following drive and 75 yards for a touchdown on the next one, including MSU's first offensive play of 40-plus yards on the season. MSU led 10-0 midway through the second quarter, and Iowa had yet to pick up a first down. The game was in hand.
Naturally, Iowa scored a touchdown on a 47-yard throw to the flat on the next drive, and they went 65 yards for another touchdown to take a 14-10 lead at halftime. We'd seen this before. Just when the offense finally shows up, the defense can't hold on. Iowa, Michigan and Nebraska all drove for game-winning or game-tying drives at the end of regulation last season.
But with everything seemingly falling apart again, the Spartans broke through. MSU drove 75 yards for a go-ahead touchdown to open the second half, and they would never trail again. They made clutch special teams plays (after continuing to sputter inside the 30-yard line), and again shut down Iowa's offense before a late drive in the final minutes. The result was a 26-14 win that probably wasn't even that close.
Looking back at my three keys to the game
Run the ball - A total of 138 yards as a team and 3.9 yards per carry when you take out the kneels. Not great, but Iowa has a stout front seven that is barely allowing 3.0 yards per carry, even after the MSU game. They finished with 35 non-kneel rushes, compared to 44 pass attempts. They didn't have big plays, but they only had four negative rushing yards. I was expecting/hoping for more runs after the ND game, but Iowa generally took it away, and MSU adjusted well.
Don't allow big plays - Outside of the long 47-yard TD on a dump-off and a 36-yard grab later, Iowa didn't have much of anything. The longest run was a seven-yard scramble by the quarterback. Mark Weisman's longest run was four yards.
Turnovers - Cook threw the first interception from an MSU quarterback this season, when MSU seemed to be getting a little pass-happy with a two-score lead in the fourth quarter. That was MSU's only turnover. Darqueze Dennard rebounded from pass interference-fest with two interception on deep balls. Rattled? Nope.
Field position - As noted in KJ's box score notes, MSU's average starting field position was its own 37-yard line, compared to Iowa at its 25. Mike Sadler did his thing (more below), and five of Kevin Muma's six kickoffs were touchbacks.
Tempo - Iowa hurried things up at times, but when you go three-and-out on every other drive, it doesn't really matter. Iowa had the ball for just 22 minutes. #unicornstat
Tight ends - The brief times Iowa moved the ball, they were attacking MSU linebackers in the flat with tight ends and running backs. C.J. Fiedorowicz had three catches for 21 yards and a (push-off) touchdown. Ray Hamilton had one catch for six yards and Jake Duzey had one for five yards.
Looking back at all sides of the ball
Well, that was something. As mentioned, Iowa took away the rushing game, and Connor Cook performed like a Big Ten quarterback, going 25-for-44 for 277 yards, two touchdowns and the one interception. It is notable that it was just his second road start, going against a good defense.
The receivers made a lot of nice catches. I can only recall a couple drops. There were probably too many third down throws short of the sticks, but when receivers break tackles and pick up first downs, it's not as noticeable. Most encouraging was just that there was a downfield passing threat. Cook wasn't just completing short passes, he was hitting a lot of medium throws. Six receivers had at least one grab of at least 10 yards, and four had at least one of at least 20 yards.
In total, nine players caught passes, and five players caught multiple passes, led by Bennie Fowler (9, 92, 1 TD), and Macgarrett Kings (5, 94, 1). You need to see the receiving corps have multiple games like to believe it's not an aberration, but if they play like that, MSU's offense is going to move the ball.
I mentioned the team rushing yards above. Jeremy Langford finished with 43 yards on 14 carries (3.1), while the redshirt was burned on Delton Williams for 32 yards on nine carries (3.6). I'm guessing you'll see these two from here on out, with some Nick Hill sprinkled in there. My first impression of Williams is that he has great vision when it comes to following blocks. He didn't have a negative rush, and he did a great job of finding a hole and falling forward, something Le'Veon Bell excelled at. Langford still hasn't broken a big play, but that partly falls on the offensive line and receivers blocking.
The offensive line wasn't great in the rushing game, but again, a stout front seven. Iowa had just four QB hurries and no sacks. Part of that is due to Cook's ability to move in the pocket, but the pass protection has been very good.
All together, an extremely encouraging offensive performance. We keep saying MSU needs to be just not terrible on offense. On Saturday, they were good.
Iowa had 140 yards outside of those two quick touchdowns drives late in the second quarter, but MSU's defense responded with a shutout in the second half.
The Hawkeyes just had nothing. They averaged 1.4 yards per rush and 5.2 yards per attempt. There were a few Iowa fans doubting the MSU defense. I don't think that's the case anymore, though the Hawks don't have a dynamic offense, by any means. In the end, you allow 4.3 yards per play with two turnovers, and you've more than done your job.
No sacks and five QB hurries, but Iowa used a lot of big sets. The four-man rush is still a bit of a problem, but Shilique Calhoun (four QB hurries, 0.5 TFLs) did his part.
Five MSU players had at least six tackles, while nine had at least three.
The biggest difference in the game at a key point. This is the topic of my Freep column. Leading 20-14 at the end of three quarters, MSU converts a fake punt, and Geiger makes a 49-yard field goal to make it a two-score game. After MSU throws a pick on its next drive, Iowa's senior kicker misses a 50-yard. After that, it was over. Those three special teams plays put the game out of reach.
Geiger missed his first kick, but rebounded strong with four straight makes. Sadler averaged 44.4 yards on five punts, with two inside the 20 and Hey Diddle Diddle (Sadler to the right, but that doesn't rhyme).
It felt like a near-perfect win for MSU. At least as perfect as you can get with expectations. This was the best overall performance against a quality opponent since Boise State last year. Just three three-and-outs from the offense. Cook looked poised and confident, the receivers made tough grabs, the running game was effective enough, and Geiger came up huge. The defense did what it did, and we continue to take that for granted.
Suddenly, the outlook on this season is much brighter. The next three games (vs. Indiana, vs. Purdue, at Illinois) weren't going to change, but heading into those off two straight losses and in a deep hole for a division title would have been tough to swallow. Now, people are looking at MSU opening Big Ten play 4-0. Is it overconfident? Should we take them one game at a time? Yes. But MSU should beat all three teams. They just should. If they play like they did Saturday, they will. If they lose one of them, the Iowa win would have been for naught. If MSU truly is a Legends contender, you have to win those games. But something tells me fans will be sweating more over these next three weeks than they probably should, because a game or two will be too close for comfort.
We know what Indiana did to MSU in the first half last year, but the Spartans should be better-prepared this time for what will be the 500th game in Spartan Stadium history.
The Iowa game was called one of the biggest games in the Dantonio era, and the Spartans answered the bell. The pitchforks and panic buttons are put away, and optimism is abound, for now.