Detroit News writers Matt Charboneau and John Niyo discuss Michigan State's win over Iowa. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — They watched a movie, then stuck around for the closing credits. And give credit where it’s due for this Michigan State team, after slugging out a 17-10 victory over Iowa in Saturday’s Big Ten opener at Spartan Stadium.
The defense didn’t just do what it needed to do in this one. It did what it couldn’t do last season. And as Michigan State braces for Saturday’s rivalry showdown in Ann Arbor, hoping for a happier ending this time around against the Wolverines, the way this one ended is a good place to start if you’re looking for reasons it might.
But first, let senior co-captain Chris Frey set the scene, with a nod to the director, head coach Mark Dantonio.
“Last night after our team meeting we had a team movie and we watched the final fight of the movie ‘Southpaw,’ ” Frey said. “We knew the type of team that (the Hawkeyes) were, and Coach D told the team, ‘This is gonna be a 12-round fight.’”
And sure enough, that’s how the story played out, with these two teams each delivering their fair share of body blows. Michigan State grabbed an early 14-0 edge and led throughout before a crowd of 73,331, but the Spartans were unable to deliver a knockout punch.
They bungled a crucial short-yardage situation to thwart a would-be scoring drive in the third quarter, then threw away another opportunity early in the fourth. This time they didn’t cough up the football, at least — not like they did a week ago against Notre Dame — but as the shadows enveloped the stadium early Saturday evening it was clear the defense would have to turn out the lights.
The Spartans had forced a three-and-out with barely 4 minutes to play, but with Dantonio trying to bleed the clock, the Hawkeyes would get one final chance with the ball deep in their own territory with 45 seconds left.
“And we went into that last series like, ‘This is the 12th round. It’s time to finish it,’ ” Frey said.
They finished it, all right. Playing a prevent defense, Raequan Williams hurried Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley into a first-down incompletion. Then Demetrius Cooper came up with a coverage sack on second down. And after safety Khari Willis dragged down tight end Noah Fant on the ensuing play, all that was left was the final bell, with Stanley stumbling as he tried — and failed — to get off one more snap before time expired.
“We talked about this being a must-win game — that was our mentality coming in,” said middle linebacker Joe Bachie, who led the Spartans with nine tackles, including a sack and three other stops behind the line of scrimmage. “We knew it was gonna be a fight. We talked about 12 rounds. And it took all 12 rounds.”
Last season, they rarely made it to the final bell. And it’s not a stretch to suggest Saturday’s game was one they would’ve lost a year ago, coming unraveled the way they did at Indiana and then at home against BYU and so on. The Spartans were outscored after halftime last season for the first time in Dantonio’s tenure in East Lansing, and whatever the reasons for that — injuries, effort, chemistry — the results were staggering as Michigan State lost eight of its final nine games.
It’s one reason Dantonio and his staff spent much of the spring and summer preaching that “pressure is a privilege,” pushing the Spartans to find a resolve that’d suddenly gone missing. There were other reasons, of course.
“But we talked about it a lot,” said Mike Panasiuk, a sophomore defensive tackle. “And throughout this whole game we were talking about it. We kept saying, ‘We’ve got to finish, we’ve got to finish, we’ve got to finish.’ We definitely emphasized it. A lot.”
It showed, in ways big and small. And Saturday it particularly showed up front, as that Michigan State defensive line — a major question mark heading into the season — dominated an opponent that prides itself on tough, hard-nosed play and sound technique in the trenches.
Iowa had won 11 of its last 12 road games dating to 2014 and was coming off a last-second loss to No. 4 Penn State a week ago. But the Hawkeyes couldn’t find any traction Saturday as the Spartans held them to 231 yards of total offense. Akrum Wadley managed just 17 carries for 30 yards, and Iowa’s team total was even worse — 25 carries, 19 yards — thanks to all the lost-yardage plays.
Michigan State finished with nine tackles for loss and a pair of second-half fumble recoveries – the first two of the season for the Spartans. What’s more, they were credited with eight quarterback hurries and three sacks, giving them a total of nine in the first four games. This from a team that managed just 11 sacks all of last season.
Mike Tressel, Michigan State’s co-defensive coordinator, was particularly pleased with the play of his interior defensive line. The coaches knew coming in this likely would be a low-scoring affair — “an old-school game,” as Tressel called it. And for those defensive tackles — Panasiuk, Williams and Naquan Jones — “they knew this game was going to be on their shoulders,” he added.
They shouldered the responsibility well, and the Spartans’ ability to get pressure with a three-man rush, at times, didn’t go unnoticed. Cooper’s showing Saturday also felt like another step forward for this defense. And if Bachie keeps playing like that, this defense really might be able to carry the Spartans in ways we didn’t expect.
“We have confidence right now,” Tressel said. “I don't think we lost our confidence after last week, but it certainly grows when you play a game like that.”