Michigan State passes road test with win at Iowa
Even though Michigan State started the weekend atop the Big Ten's Legends Division, questions remained about just how good the No. 12 Spartans could be on the road.
An ugly 10-7 win at a then-scuffling Ohio State was sandwiched around big road losses at Notre Dame and Nebraska. If Michigan State couldn't beat an up-and-down Iowa team that had embarrassed them a year ago, it would have been tough to envision the Spartans contending for much of anything.
Michigan State responded to the doubters with a statement win in Iowa City.
Kirk Cousins threw for 260 yards and three touchdowns, Le'Veon Bell ran for 112 yards and a score, and the Spartans (8-2, 5-1) moved a step closer to the division title with a 37-21 win, its first on the Hawkeyes' home field since 1989.
''We knew at the beginning of the season that if we weren't going to be able to win on the road we weren't going to get where we wanted to go. We were able to win at Ohio State and to be here now at Iowa, two big wins for us, gives us a great chance,'' Cousins said.
The Spartans got past the Hawkeyes by putting them in a massive hole early.
It's the same thing Iowa did to them in 2010 - only Michigan State never got out of it.
Cousins directed a balanced and efficient 64-yard drive on the Spartans' first possession, finding B.J. Cunningham for the first of two TD catches. Johnny Adams then made an impressive play on the sidelines, cutting off a route with an interception of Iowa's James Vandenberg and bringing it back to the Hawkeyes' 19-yard line.
Cousins found running back Edwin Baker isolated on a linebacker in the end zone, and his 17-yard touchdown pass made it 14-0 Michigan State midway through the first quarter.
Cousins was awful in last year's 37-6 loss to the Hawkeyes, but it was clear by then he and the Spartans weren't about to repeat that performance.
Michigan State exploded for 17 more points in the second quarter and ran into Kinnick Stadium's famed pink locker room with a stunning 31-7 lead.
''I think you've got to come in mentally ready and you have to bring your emotions with you,'' Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. ''That's what you have to do.''
Michigan State also visited Iowa sporting the Big Ten's worst rushing offense. The Spartans didn't exactly run the ball down the Hawkeyes throats, but they certainly did enough on the ground. Bell had 71 yards on just 10 carries in the first half, and his 25-yard TD run late in the first half gave Michigan State a 24-7 cushion.
''(Offensive coordinator Dan) Roushar had us come out and run the ball and prove a point. We went out there and ran it effectively,'' Bell said.
There was a moment when it looked as though the Spartans might just blow the huge lead.
Luckily for them, it passed.
Iowa rallied late in the third quarter with two quick touchdowns and appeared to be driving for another one early in the fourth. But the Hawkeyes couldn't get lined up right on a key 4th-down-and-1 and gave it back to the Spartans, and Michigan State's Dan Conroy drilled a 48-yard field goal to make it 37-21 with just 5:11 left.
The Spartans kept attacking in the second half, using a reverse pass and a fake field goal in a drive early in the third quarter. Some thought they might have been trying to rub it in on their longtime nemesis, but Dantonio insisted he just wanted to see his team maintain an aggressive mindset.
''Sometimes you get out and ahead and you start watching the clock,'' Dantonio said. ''We didn't want to watch the clock.''
Michigan State survived a grueling four-game stretch against Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska with its goal intact. Now only woeful Indiana and a road date at Northwestern stand in its way of the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.
The Spartans need to keep their foot on the gas, as Dantonio likes to say, to make that a reality.
After all, a major reason why they hold a one-game lead over Nebraska is that the Huskers couldn't handle Northwestern - in Lincoln, no less - in a 28-25 loss on Nov. 5.
''We're right where we want to go and you can't ask for anything more than that,'' Cousins said.