East Lansing — Even the accolades come with unflattering adjectives for Michigan State’s next opponent.
So that disrespect card the Spartans love to play? It’s probably not going to work this week in Indianapolis.
Not with Michigan State opening as a 4.5-point favorite over an undefeated Iowa team in Saturday’s Big Ten championship game. And not after the Hawkeyes have spent the last several weeks hearing about how they don’t really belong in the conversation for college football’s four-team playoff.
No, in that respect, Kirk Ferentz probably has Mark Dantonio trumped, a point he subtly made Sunday on a teleconference to kick off the hype for this week’s title game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
It’s a contest that’ll serve as a de facto play-in game, with the winner all but assured a berth in a Dec. 31 semifinal. But with a schedule strength that doesn’t match some of the other teams in the playoff mix, Iowa — one of two remaining unbeaten FBS teams along with Clemson — has faced a different sort of difficulty: Getting noticed.
They were ninth the initial CFP poll a few weeks ago, “and described kind of as mundane,” said Ferentz, Iowa’s head coach. The next week, after they’d moved up thanks to losses by Michigan State, TCU and LSU, “we were described as ‘consistent,’ ” Ferentz noted.
Indeed, as the selection committee chairman Jeff Long put it, “They aren’t flashy, but they are consistent.”
“So we’ll take that as a compliment,” Ferentz said Sunday, though the sarcasm suggested otherwise.
More likely, they’ll take it as another slight, and pack it — along with a huge contingent of fans wearing black and gold — for the trip to Indianapolis, where most pundits won’t give them much of a chance to upset the East Division champs from East Lansing.
Asked if he’d noticed a growing respect for the Hawkeyes in recent weeks, Ferentz politely said no Sunday, as you’d expect.
“I don’t listen to too much of what’s going on outside, but from what I can tell there’s still not a lot of it,” he said. “That’s fine. All we’re trying to do is play. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to win every game in front of us.”
Ferentz really wasn’t sure what he had back in August, when his job security was the subject of much discussion — the Hawkeyes were 34-30 the last five seasons — and his team was picked by most to finish third or fourth in its division.
It probably wasn’t until mid-October, when Iowa went to Northwestern missing a handful of starters and won in a rout, 40-10, with backup Akrum Wadley rushing for 204 yards and four touchdowns, that the coach had a firm grasp on how special a season this could be.
The Hawkeyes haven’t trailed in a game since — they actually haven’t been behind after halftime all season — but they haven’t done much to dispel their critics in terms of style points, Friday’s win at Nebraska included.
“We’re not trying to be pretty, we’re trying to be productive,” said Ferentz, whose team is winning with physical play, an opportunistic defense and a savvy quarterback in C.J. Beathard who is now 13-0 as a starter. “Football’s not gymnastics. There are style points in gymnastics. Here it’s having one point more than your opponent. We’re 12-0. You can’t do better than that.”
He’s right, of course. And that’s generally the way it has been for Iowa under Ferentz, the longest-tenured coach in major-college football along with Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops. (Both have been at their respective schools since 1999.)
“When we have a good team, typically we find a way to win close games,” Ferentz said. “We don’t lead the country in five- and four-star recruits. We typically don’t blow folks out. That’s not our DNA, typically. When you play here, it’s more like being in the NFL: You’re going to be involved in a lot of close games and you have to find a way to be successful in those games.”
And if that sounds familiar for Michigan State fans, it should. Dantonio made no secret when he took over in East Lansing that he’d try to pattern his program, at least in some ways, after the one Ferentz had built in Iowa City. Ferentz on Sunday included Wisconsin in that same group, with similar pedigrees and like-minded philosophies.
“Some people may not think that’s the best way to do things,” Ferentz said, “but all three programs have had their share of success.”
These two schools have had their share of disputes as well, clashing on the recruiting trail and on the field. There’s a history of nail-biters (2008, ’09 and ’12), along with some bitter defeats in recent years. Iowa trashed Michigan State’s unbeaten season in 2010, showing no mercy late in a 31-point rout. A year later, the Spartans were accused of faking injuries to slow down Iowa’s offense as it tried to rally in a loss at Kinnick Stadium.
Saturday’s meeting will be the first since 2013 — a Michigan State win in Iowa City that served as Connor Cook’s breakout game as a starter and helped propel the Spartans to their 13-1 season. But while it’s the first trip for the Hawkeyes to the Big Ten title game, it’s the third in five years for the Spartans, something Dantonio hopes will provide an edge for his team.
“We’ve got guys that this is their third time down there,” Dantonio said. “I think that’s a plus for us.”
That’s hardly the only advantage he’s counting on, obviously. And the way Michigan State has played the last two weeks, there’s ample reason to expect they’ll win Saturday.
But just the same, something Dantonio was saying after that win in Columbus bears repeating. He talked about how his team “sat around all day and listened to how we were underdogs” on ESPN.
“And I think that motivates people,” he added.
The Spartans will do well to remember that now.