Iowa City, Iowa — It's hard to put too much on the first conference game of the season, but Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio knew how important Saturday's matchup with Iowa was.
The Spartans have one of the best defenses in the nation, but their offense has been largely ineffective and they were coming off a disappointing loss two weeks ago at Notre Dame followed by a bye week. Add in the fact a Big Ten division loss would have put Michigan State behind right out of the gate and what it did at Kinnick Stadium was all the more impressive.
It can hardly be described as an offensive explosion, but for Michigan State, it was long overdue as it rolled up 412 total yards and quarterback Connor Cook threw for 277 yards and two touchdowns. The result was a 26-14 victory in front of a crowd of 69,025 that ended Iowa's four-game winning streak.
"This is a program win," Dantonio said Saturday afternoon. "We would have been 3-2 (with a loss), so everything is positive going forward. No, we haven't played our best football yet, but we've played really well at times and we're coming. I've said, when the offense gets a little more confidence and things start to blossom — we saw some confidence today. When the offense is playing at the same level as the defense, good things are gonna happen.
"Coming into this game we knew it was an important game for us. Iowa had won four straight and had a lot of positive things going on. We, on the other hand, were sort of getting beat around a little bit. We needed to look from within our team and find ourselves and I think we did that today."
What they found was an offense that proved as effective as it has been all season, something that no doubt was a welcome sight for a defense that came in ranked No. 1 in the country.
"It feels great," said cornerback Darqueze Dennard, who had two interceptions, "with (the offense) going through hard times with people saying they're not clicking. Me, I see it in practice every day, playing the way they play and coming out and playing the way they did in this game is a great feeling. They had a great game, but they still haven't reached their ceiling."
They likely have not reached that ceiling, and the fact they got inside Iowa's 30-yard line three times early in the game and only scored three points is a testament to that. But the fact Cook played as well as he did while the receiving corps also stood out is a long way from what this offense showed the first four games.
Senior Bennie Fowler, benched after the first game of the season, had a career-high nine catches for 92 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown grab. Sophomore Macgarrett Kings Jr. continued to shine, making five grabs for 94 yards and scoring on a 46-yard strike from Cook. The Spartans also got solid play from receiver Aaron Burbridge, and Tony Lippett had an outstanding first-down catch, as well.
"Our skill at wide receiver is pretty good," Dantonio said. "I know it hasn't been as consistent as we want, but the skill set you saw today with our guys making catches. Those guys are on the field to make plays."
It's been quite the change for a group that has been the focus of the offense's problems dating to last season. Drops have been frequent while big plays have been just the opposite.
That changed Saturday.
Kings made several nice moves on his touchdown and benefited from a block by Fowler. On another play Fowler earned a first down on sheer will, breaking a tackle and taking it up the sideline. And Lippett's first-down grab early in the game was as good as it gets.
"Everyone is catching the ball great," Kings said. "We talk about it all the time and have a chip on our shoulder. We never forget the criticism and what everybody is saying about us. We use it as fuel to continue to do great things in the game."
There is no doubt the offense was also aided by Cook's best game.
He has struggled with his accuracy this season but was 25-for-44 on Saturday and never looked out of sorts at any point.
"I was just loose," Cook explained. "Notre Dame was my first road start so I was a little uptight, but I came out today with a more loose mindset and more confident. I felt like I had all day to throw and went back to feeling more comfortable as a quarterback."
It showed early as Michigan State got inside the Iowa 30 on three of its first four drives. However, the Spartans had only a 27-yard Michael Geiger field goal to show for it.
But the Spartans were moving the ball, and Cook eventually connected with Kings to put Michigan State up 10-0 with 6:18 to play in the first half.
But Iowa (4-2, 1-1) showed it wasn't about to lie down on its home field.
The Hawkeyes gained 140 total yards on their final two drives of the first half, gaining just 20 in their other possessions. They cut a 10-0 Spartans lead to 10-7 on a 47-yard pass from Jake Rudock to Damon Bullock and went ahead on a 10-yard strike from Rudock to tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. Before that, Iowa had not picked up a first down.
The problem for Iowa was Michigan State's offense took control at the outset of the second half, marching 75 yards on seven plays and finishing the drive with Fowler's touchdown.
"We did nothing at all and then once we got it going a little bit, it was certainly good," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "The disappointing part was in the second half we weren't able to do that up until the last possession.
Michigan State's defense clamped down and allowed Iowa only 23 rushing yards. The Hawkeyes also had 10 possessions that lasted three plays or less, including two that ended with interceptions.
"Our defense helped us out," Dantonio said. "They usually do."
Geiger added a 35-yard field goal late in third quarter to extend the lead to 20-14, and after another three-and-out, the Spartans got tricky.
Punter Mike Sadler ran for 25 yards on fourth-and-7 from the Michigan State 37 on the first play of the fourth quarter. Geiger nailed a career-best 49-yard field goal four plays later to extend the lead to 23-14.
The Spartans essentially put the game away with 5:25 to play on Geiger's fourth field goal, this time from 40 yards, as the defense closed the deal. Only Iowa's final drive of the game, which ended when it failed to convert on fourth down, was successful as it lasted 16 plays.
"This is a big team win," Dantonio said. "We've been thinking about our last game and how to strengthen ourselves and re-evaluating ourselves as a football team. We kept talking about how you're going to have to play through adversity and we just have to basically storm the gates. I just thought it was a great team win for our football team and we saw some outstanding things."