Saturday, November 12, 2011
Spartans leaving nothing to chance
By Adam Rittenberg
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Michigan State didn't merely lose a game here last year.
The Spartans didn't merely get "killed," as cornerback Tony Lippett said, in a game he described as "a disaster."
Michigan State, in falling 37-6 to Iowa in 2010, lost the ability to control its own fate in the Big Ten. While the Spartans responded with three consecutive victories to close the season and record a team-record 11 wins, their loss to Iowa came back to haunt them when the BCS bowl selections rolled around.
Mark Dantonio's team was left out, despite a win against Wisconsin, which went to Pasadena because of a stronger BCS standings profile.
The Spartans once again came to Kinnick Stadium with their Rose Bowl fate in their hands. And this time, they refused to let it go, surging to a 31-7 halftime lead and prevailing 37-21 against Iowa.
"Like [linebacker] Max Bullough said, we've just got to take it on our own," Lippett said. "We can't think about other people losing or stuff like that. We're in the driver's seat, so let's just take it."
Michigan State can win the division next week with a win against Indiana and a Nebraska loss to Michigan. If the Spartans beat Indiana and Northwestern the following week, they'll be headed to Indy, no matter what any other team does.
"We're right where we want to be," senior quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "Can't ask for anything more than that."
Michigan State's Kirk Cousins completed 18 of 31 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns.
Heading into the game, Dantonio talked about the need to weather the storm against Iowa or be the storm. Turned out, the Spartans experienced both.
They established control from the onset, as Le'Veon Bell rushed for 9 yards on the first play from scrimmage. Michigan State racked up 37 rush yards on its opening possession and 91 in the first half -- just 10 yards shy of its rushing total for its previous road game at Nebraska.
"[Offensive coordinator] Dan Roushar came out and [said], 'Run the ball, prove a point,'" said Bell, who finished with a season-high 112 rush yards and a touchdown on 20 carries and added two receptions for 49 yards. "We ran it effectively today, and that's a big reason why we won the game."
After falling behind 30-0 at halftime last year and eventually trailing Iowa 37-0, Michigan State went to the locker room with a 24-point lead.
"They were a lot more ready to play than we were," Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Dantonio kept the foot on the gas, calling a wide receiver pass and a fake field goal -- a play boringly nicknamed "Gold" -- with a 31-7 lead. While some saw it as a response to Iowa calling a reverse pass with a 31-point, fourth-quarter lead in last year's contest, Dantonio said he wasn't trying to send a message.
"I just kept telling our coaches, 'Play like we're even, don't play like we're ahead, don't let our players play like we were ahead,'" Dantonio said. "... Maybe people from Iowa don't think it was close. I personally thought it was a close football game in that second half."
He was right. Michigan State's first win in Iowa since 1989 wouldn't be so easy.
A storm arrived late in the third quarter, as Iowa's big-play offense came alive behind senior wide receiver Marvin McNutt (8 catches, 130 yards, TD). The Hawkeyes recorded two quick touchdowns to close to within 13 points entering the fourth quarter.
But Michigan State stood its ground and did enough to keep Iowa at arm's length. The defense flustered Iowa QB James Vandenberg, who had arguably his worst passing performance of the season. In a game in which Michigan State received contributions from so many sources, it was fitting that Jairus Jones, a safety who tore his Achilles' tendon late this spring and seemed unlikely to play this season, forced a fumble in the red zone that Lippett recovered to seal the win with 2:53 left.
Michigan State had 10 different defenders record either a sack, a tackle for loss, a forced fumble, an interception, a fumble recovery or a pass breakup. On offense, the Spartans had five players record multiple receptions, while Bell and junior Edwin Baker combined for 163 rush yards. Although top wideout B.J. Cunningham had two touchdown grabs, fellow receiver Keshawn Martin (87 receiving yards, 28-yard pass completion) and tight end Brian Linthicum (5 receptions, 71 yards) were bigger factors.
When Dantonio entered the locker room afterward, "there were so many people to congratulate," he said.
Dantonio had many options for the game ball, but he handed it to Cousins, who brought the pigskin into the postgame interview room. Cousins threw three interceptions in last year's loss, including a pick-six.
The senior, who grew up rooting for Iowa and had several family ties to the school, capitalized on his chance for redemption. Cousins fired three touchdown passes and no interceptions. While he fumbled several snaps, he didn't hurt his team.
"It's special to be able to win and go out on the right note," said Cousins, who took pictures with folks wearing both Spartan green and Hawkeye black after the game. "I guess when I go back to visit my grandparents every summer in Iowa, I can feel a little better about the vacation than I felt last summer."
The win marked the 34th for Cousins and his fellow seniors, moving them past last year's seniors as the winningest class in team history. Under Dantonio, Michigan State now has won a road game against all but three Big Ten squads (Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska).
"With the nature of what coach Dantonio is doing here at Michigan State, there have been a lot of things 'first time' or 'best ever,'" Cousins said. "A lot of firsts and a lot of special accomplishments."
But there's one special accomplishment left, one important first to achieve. Michigan State is three wins away from its first Rose Bowl appearance since Jan. 1, 1988.
"We're one win closer," Dantonio said. "... The farther we go, the higher the [stakes]. We want to still be in a position to play 14 games.