IOWA CITY – The likely first Legends Division champion of the Big Ten did Saturday what champions do.
Michigan State went to a conference snake pit in Kinnick Stadium, and this year it had the antidote for the venom. All of the Spartans’ units were in winning mode from the get-go.
This wasn’t Pittsburgh. MSU didn’t let Iowa set a school-record for a comeback the way Pitt did, and rode away with a 37-21 victory. The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, got ridden right out of the Big Ten title race after getting outclassed.
Ten games in, and you’ll hear no more if-this or if-that regarding Iowa and the Legends derby. Ten games in, there are no secrets or gray areas. The Hawkeyes are what they are: Also-rans.
In the first-half of a game to determine who exactly would be in the so-called driver’s seat for the Legends throne, Iowa gave a performance reminiscent of Tennessee Tech and Louisiana Monroe here in September.
It was 31-7 at halftime. “We clearly didn’t play well enough in any regard in the first-half,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Now, Michigan State is good. Good enough to beat Wisconsin at home, good enough to beat Ohio State in Columbus. That’s very good. And the 8-2 Spartans were very good Saturday.
But you don’t take a 31-7 halftime lead against anyone in football if the opponent is pushing back hard enough.
“I’m not sure we had it at the start,” Ferentz said. “We were just a little more detailed a week ago (a 24-16 win over Michigan). We left the door open, all three phases of the game. It wasn’t like it was one area.”
No, Iowa didn’t roll over for the second half, and yes, it became a legitimate ballgame in the second-half for a while. But too much damage had been done.
Ten games in, and the Hawkeyes are still herky-jerky. Lose at Iowa State, beat Pitt the next week. Lose at Penn State, bounce back against Northwestern. Lose at lowly Minnesota, redeem yourself against Michigan, fritter away the redemption against Michigan State.
It’s adding up to a season that isn’t particularly memorable, and has the potential to be less than that.
The Hawkeyes had a really good defensive game last week. Apparently, that often-riddled defense wasn’t capable of a repeat effort. It’s a rare year indeed when you can win more than you lose in the Big Ten with so-so ‘D.’ Hence Iowa’s 3-3 record in the conference.
Far poorer teams than Michigan State have piled up a lot of yardage on Iowa this season. The Spartans entered this game last in the league in rushing offense, but hadn’t yet played three of the Big Ten’s most-porous rushing defenses, Iowa’s among them.
Marcus Coker gained one yard on his first carry of the game for the Hawkeyes. MSU’s Le’Veon Bell picked up nine yards on his first rush.
Iowa went 3-and-out on its first possession. The Spartans went 64 yards for a touchdown on their first drive.
Coker’s offensive line was no mystery to MSU’s defense. He had 21 carries for 57 yards. Bell’s offensive line played like one of Iowa’s good O-lines from the not-so-distant past. He had 20 rushes for 112 yards.
“Le’Veon, great plays,” Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio said. “I thought Edwin (Baker, who had 13 carries for 51 yards) ran very well, powerful runs. I thought they ran with a mission in mind.”
Michigan State had the mission. They had the better quarterback this day, too. James Vandenberg wasn’t his usual Kinnick self for Iowa. Neither was MSU’s Kirk Cousins.
Cousins made Iowans wonder what all the praise for him was about last year when he came to Kinnick and basically stunk it up. He threw interceptions early and went from jittery to rattled in a 37-6 loss.
Saturday, Cousins resembled the player who has 57 career touchdown passes and just 25 picks, and has a 19-4 record as a starter over the last two years. He threw for three scores, and made no hurtful mistakes whatsoever.
For all you Iowa fans at the game know, you may have been sitting among a future tormentor, some kid who will come back to Kinnick someday trying to ruin your day.
Cousins’ grandfather, Ralph Woolard, played for Iowa in the late 1940s. Ralph’s daughter, MaryAnn, grew up in Fort Dodge. She was a nursing school graduate at Iowa and was a member of the school’s dance team.
She moved to Illinois and later Michigan after marrying Don Cousins, but remained a huge Hawkeyes fan. The family came to Iowa City for many games, even from Michigan. But they went green when Kirk joined Michigan State’s program.
“Certainly coming to a lot of games as a kid, wearing the (Iowa) jersey, it’s special to be able to win and go out on the right note,” said Kirk Cousins, who had once cheered on Tim Dwight and Brad Banks.
“I guess when I go back and visit my grandparents in the summer, I can feel a little better about the vacation than I felt last summer.”
At least someone in the state will be happy next summer when the topic is Big Ten football.