EAST LANSING, MI. — If the Hawkeyes can take any consolation in their first regular-season loss in 14 games, they can say that Michigan State really didn’t beat them — they beat themselves.
But that is indeed of little help as the unranked Spartans downed ninth-ranked Iowa 20-10 in Saturday’s Big Ten Conference season opener. It was the Hawkeyes’ first conference loss since Nov. 3, 2001, when Wisconsin defeated them 34-28.
The Hawkeyes (4-1) had four turnovers, three of which led to 13 Spartan points, as they struggled to achieve on offense, while the Spartans’ defense pounded on a team down several receiver options.
It was the second time this season that Michigan State (4-1) defeated a nationally-ranked team having downed No. 23 Notre Dame last week, 22-16.
“We just didn’t execute the way we were capable of,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Then we turned the ball over and had a few negative yardage plays. Those two things really make it tough to have success.”
Quarterback Jeff Smoker got the Spartans started offensively with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Ziehl Kavanaght and a strong passing attack, going 7-of-7 for 62 yards, in a 10-play opening drive that went 80 yards and ticked off four minutes from the clock.
On the next possession, Iowa quarterback Nathan Chandler connected with wide receiver Ramon Ochoa on an 11-yard third-and-four play with less than 10 minutes remaining in the first, but Ochoa let the ball squeeze out as Eric Smith hit him near Iowa’s 41-yard line.
“They forced a lot of the problems we had. They did a great job. We just weren’t able to answer them.”
Head Coach Kirk Ferentz
That set up another Michigan State scoring drive as Smoker caught Eric Knott wide open in the end zone for a 7-yard pass.
Smoker went 28-of-48 for 218 yards, two touchdowns and four sacks, without an interception. He broke three school records for completions, attempts and touchdown passes.
“He did a great job. I thought they had a great game plan coming in,” said Ferentz. “It put us on our heels a little bit, especially in that first quarter. After that, we settled down and played pretty well on defense. I thought we played extremely well in the second half. But we made too many mistakes overall as a team to expect to win this football game.”
Strong safety Bob Sanders entered the game with 7:19 on the clock in the first quarter, and Iowa’s defense was able to hold the Spartans for the first time of the game without a touchdown. Sanders had been out since the Miami of Ohio game.
After the defense was able to hold Michigan State, Iowa’s running game came along as Fred Russell had four runs for 40 yards and set up the Hawkeyes’ first scoring opportunity of the game as the first quarter ended. Russell had 23 carries for 122 yards.
That opportunity became a reality when Chandler connected with Mike Follett on a 6-yard pass to start the second.
Chandler went 11-of-23 for 158 yards with one interception, five sacks and one touchdown. He carried the ball nine times for a net loss of 24 yards.
“We really never got into a smooth rhythm or tempo offensively and we had a lot of new parts out there too which I think adds to it,” said Ferentz. “We’re down a couple of receivers. We have to fight through those things and play better.”
The drive that presented the Hawkeyes best opportunity for a comeback came in the third quarter, when Iowa was trailing just 17-7.
The Hawkeyes had four turnovers. Three led to 13 Spartan points.
The Hawkeyes moved the ball 75 yards with the help of two 15-yard MSU fouls. However, Iowa couldn’t convert on second and third down plays and kicker Nate Kaeding was called in for Iowa’s last score of the game.
Despite the lackluster performance, Ferentz was hopeful for continued progress, especially before his team faces 10th-ranked Michigan inside Kinnick Stadium next Saturday for Homecoming.
“I think we’re at that point now where we feel we can compete week in and week out with anybody. But to do those things, you have to play smart football. We’re not talented enough to go out there and make mistakes and overcome them,” Ferentz said. “That’s kind of where we’re at right now. That’s really the story today. I don’t want to discredit Michigan State. They forced a lot of the problems we had. They did a great job. We just weren’t able to answer them.”
Barry Pump, hawkeyesports.com