East Lansing — After losing its final non-conference game of the season last week to Notre Dame, Michigan State had one goal on Saturday against Iowa — start Big Ten play off on a winning note.
The Spartans did just that, erasing some of the bad taste from last season when a loss in the conference opener was the first of seven straight defeats. They also created at least some momentum heading into next week’s rivalry matchup with Michigan.
Before that gets rolling, however, here are some key takeaways from the victory over Iowa:
■ Defensive revival: A season ago, Michigan State couldn’t close games, especially on the defensive side of the ball. In Saturday’s win over the Hawkeyes, the Spartans defense was tested over and over in the second half and responded in a way it never did last season. Michigan State finished with six three-and-outs on defense, the last two coming on the final two Iowa drives, with the Spartans holding onto a seven-point lead. Those were the moments last season when Michigan State would have given up a long drive or allowed a big play. This time, however, the Spartans stood tall as the offense couldn’t add insurance points.
What’s more, the defense was solid the entire game. A week after failing to bail out the offense on any of its three turnovers, the MSU defense this week was stout from start to finish. Iowa managed to run for just 19 yards despite entering the game averaging 155 yards on the ground while allowing the Hawkeyes to convert just four of 14 third-down attempts.
■ Impressive punting: Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has said at various times that the punt is the most important play in a game. While that might be a bit of an exaggeration, junior Jake Hartbarger showed how crucial it can be to get quality punting. After struggling through his first two seasons, Hartbarger has been outstanding this season, and that was no different against Iowa. He punted five times, and all five kicks were downed inside the Iowa 20-yard line. In fact, four of them were downed inside the 10, as Hartbarger continually pinned the Hawkeyes deep.
Iowa followed all five punts by going three-and-out and never advanced the ball past its own 13-yard line. Hartbarger entered the game third in the Big Ten in punting average at 44.9 yards a game and has now downed seven kicks inside the 10-yard line this season. It has Dantonio comparing Hartbarger to a carnival goer. “When you go the fair and everything is going well for you, you have a lot of confidence that you can shoot the hoops. You go over and pitch a penny. You can do all these different things, and you can just enjoy going out there punting. That’s where he’s at right now.”
■ Davis dominating: After seeing limited action as a true freshman in 2015, big things were expected of receiver Felton Davis in 2016. However, injuries slowed Davis at times last season and he finished with just 12 catches for 150 yards. All that is in the past now as Davis continued to be one of quarterback Brian Lewerke’s favorite targets against Iowa with nine catches for 114 yards — both career highs — and scoring a pair of touchdowns.
Davis now has 21 catches for 256 yards and four touchdowns, all surpassing his career totals entering the season. At 6-foot-4 and nearly 200 pounds, Davis has the size to overmatch most corners and the speed to get past them. The Spartans have plenty of young talent at wide receiver, but four games in, it’s becoming clear that Davis can be the real difference-maker in the group.
■ Protecting the ball: It’s not as if Michigan State believed turnovers were no big deal, but Saturday’s win over the Hawkeyes proved just how crucial it can be to hang on to the ball. Michigan State entered the game 125th in the nation in turnover ratio and were coming off a Notre Dame game where it gave the ball away three times, which led to 21 Irish points in a 20-point loss.
Against Iowa, Michigan State didn’t have a turnover for the first time this season and created two of its own — a pair of fumble recoveries in the second half. It was nearly the exact opposite as a week ago and with the way the Spartans’ defense is playing, it will be crucial moving forward for the Spartans not to beat themselves. Instead, if they protect the ball and rely on the defense, it will likely keep them in most games for the rest of the Big Ten season.
■ Young and eager: Michigan State’s youth has been talked about often, as 53 players on its roster are either freshmen or redshirt freshmen. And considering there are only 12 seniors on the roster, those young players are being counted on to produce on a weekly basis. Against Iowa, safety Tre Person became the 13th true freshman to play this season, while freshman Kevin Jarvis started at right guard in place of the injured David Beedle.
How many more freshmen join in remains to be seen, but it’s clear four games into the season that all are being relied upon to make plays. Whether it is the trio of receivers — Cody White, Hunter Rison and Laress Nelson — the offensive line duo of Jarvis and Jordan Reid, Josiah Scott at cornerback, Antjuan Simmons at linebacker or Jacub Panasiuk at defensive end, they’re all making a difference and showing that the future is bright for Michigan State.