East Lansing — It wasn’t an offensive masterpiece, but rarely is that the case when Michigan State and Iowa square off.
However, no one at Michigan State had any complaints by Saturday evening as the Spartans defense dominated and made a quick start stand up in a 17-10 victory over Iowa in front of 73,331 at Spartan Stadium.
The win is what mattered most for Michigan State (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten), and that’s exactly what it got as it heads into next week’s rivalry game with Michigan with at least a little momentum.
“It’s a big win,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “It’s a big win at Spartan Stadium and it’s a gut win. When you win with guts, when you win with toughness and when you win with effort that makes your coach happy, especially when you play under pressure. We keep talking about pressure is a privilege and when you play under pressure and you win, good things follow you usually.
“So, we’re just gonna keep getting better. We’re gonna focus on one play at a time, one game at a time and just continue to get better. But that was a huge win for us.”
It was huge in the sense it put last week’s loss to Notre Dame in the rearview mirror just in time to start Big Ten play off on the right foot, while eliminating any thoughts of a losing streak taking over headed into the biggest game of the young season.
Detroit News writers Matt Charboneau and John Niyo discuss Michigan State's win over Iowa. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
It was helped early by the play of junior wide receiver Felton Davis, who caught both of his touchdowns in the first quarter and finished with career highs in catches (nine) and yards (114).
“We knew coming out they would try and play us man-to-man on third down,” Davis said. “In the wide receiver room we pride ourselves on third down, especially when it’s like third-and-6 or more and we most likely need a pass to get a first down.
“Early in the game me and (quarterback) Brian (Lewerke) were connecting and I let him know he could have confidence in me that when he put the ball in there I’m coming down with it no matter what. I felt a lot of confidence today.”
Did he expect to put up career numbers?
“I feel like that every day,” he said with a smile.
Lewerke was sharp early, including a perfect 5-for-5 on the opening drive. More importantly he didn’t turn the ball over and went 18-for-28 for 212 yards and the two touchdowns to Davis while running 12 times for 42 yards.
“I think I made good decisions today, when to force it and when to not,” Lewerke said. “No turnovers today so that was a plus.
“Felton did a great job of getting off the defensive backs. It was easy to get him the ball and I trust him every time I throw him the ball.”
Michigan State coach talks about his team's performance in Saturday's 17-10 'white-knuckle' win to open Big Ten play. Matt Charboneau, Detroit News
As good as the offense was in the opening quarter, it was the defense that was solid the entire game, helping make up for the fact the Spartans didn’t score in the second half. Michigan State held Iowa to 19 yards rushing, as well as containing Hawkeyes running back Akrum Wadley to 30 yards on 17 carries.
Wadley scored the only touchdown for Iowa (3-2, 0-2), but there was little room to run the entire game. Quarterback Nate Stanley, who entered the game leading the Big Ten with 12 touchdown passes, fared only a little bit better. He was 16-for-31 for 197 yards but was under pressure much of the game.
The Spartans sacked Stanley three times and had eight quarterback hurries.
“I’m proud of our players,” Michigan State co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “We knew it was a game that was going to come down to the very last series and it did. The guys expected that and embraced it.
“A couple of other things I was excited to see was pressure on the quarterback, consistently, and communication on the football field. But definitely proud of them because we knew it would be 60 minutes.”
Brian Lewerke, Chris Frey, Felton Davis and Demetrius Cooper discuss Michigan State's win over Iowa. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Michigan State struck quickly as its opening drive was one of its most efficient of the season, going 75 yards on seven plays and taking an early 7-0 lead after Lewerke hit Davis with a 22-yard touchdown pass. The Spartans added to the advantage late in the first quarter after pinning Iowa deep in its own end and forcing a punt that Laress Nelson returned to the Hawkeyes’ 31.
After a facemask penalty and a pass interference call in the end zone on Iowa, Michigan State capitalized with Davis’ second touchdown catch, a 6-yarder from Lewerke to put the Spartans up 14-0 with 2:11 left in the first quarter.
Iowa got back in the game in the second quarter, finally finding some rhythm on offense as the passing game got rolling. The Hawkeyes got deep into Spartans territory on a 31-yard pass from Stanley to Ihmir Smitt-Marsette to set up Wadley’s 9-yard touchdown run to cut the Michigan State lead to 14-7 with 12:15 left in the second quarter.
The Michigan State defense ramped up the pressure late in the first half, twice forcing Iowa to punt from its end zone. The Spartans couldn’t take advantage the first time but managed to extend its lead the second time when Matt Coghlin kicked a 38-yard field goal to put Michigan State ahead, 17-7, with 43 seconds left in the second quarter.
The Spartans defense kept the pressure on in the second half, forcing a pair of fumbles, one recovered by linebacker Joe Bachie deep in MSU territory and the other created by cornerback Josiah Scott as he knocked the ball away from Iowa’s Brandon Smith where it was recovered by linebacker Chris Frey late in the third quarter.
They took control right off the bat and we weren't able to get much going offensively,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We came out in the second half and moved the ball and unfortunately turned it over. It's tough to win if you're doing that. The turnovers killed our momentum because we were driving the ball successfully on both of those series.”
Michigan State failed to convert on the turnovers and Iowa eventually trimmed the deficit to 17-10 with 9:08 to play on a 43-yard field goal from Miguel Recinos. The Michigan State defense, though, put the game away with two three-and-outs in the final four-and-a-half minutes
“Emotionally, we played extremely well and just kept hammering, kept coming knowing that it would take all four quarters and then some to make it through,” Dantonio said. “That’s the way it always is versus Iowa. … Another white-knuckle game. It’s what you love. It keeps you going.”