Iowa sports columnist Chad Leistikow and sports reporter Chris Cuellar look at how Iowa can rebound from a heart breaking loss to Penn State and take on a fast and physical Michigan State. Rodney White/The Register
EAST LANSING, Mich. — There’s no trophy at stake when Iowa faces Michigan State in football, but make no mistake: This is as meaningful as any rivalry the Hawkeyes have had over the past decade.
It’s a game of bare-knuckle intensity and white-knuckle finishes.
And nothing suggests it will be any different at 3:12 p.m. Saturday, when Iowa (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten Conference) heads into Spartan Stadium to face Michigan State (2-1, 0-0) for the ninth time in 11 seasons.
The first eight meetings have produced four wins for each team, has made local legends of Marvin McNutt (Iowa’s winning touchdown in 2009) and L.J. Scott (Michigan State’s winning score in 2015), and has seen two other games go to double-overtime.
The cumulative score has been Hawkeyes 178, Spartans 145, with a 37-6 Iowa win in 2010 being the outlier. Among Hawkeye rivals over that time span, only Wisconsin has produced a smaller scoring margin (153-131 Iowa).
“They’re going to run the football, downhill, power offense, inside zone. They’re a lot like us,” Hawkeye linebacker Ben Niemann said. “We know it’s going to be a physical game.”
Two years ago, these teams slugged it out for the Big Ten championship in Indianapolis, the Spartans prevailing 16-13 on Scott’s touchdown in the final 30 seconds. That was Amani Hooker’s indoctrination into the intensity of the rivalry, and it came from the comfort of his couch in suburban Minneapolis.
“It was a hard-nosed Big Ten classic football game. I remember the defense hitting hard and the offense executing some plays,” said Hooker, who had committed to Iowa and is now its starting free safety. “I was mad. I wasn’t part of the team, but I was at the same time.
“That (loss) is still there. That’s obviously stuck in a lot of guys' back of their head. So we want to come out, compete and get a ‘W.’”
Michigan State is a 3 ½-point favorite, but still carries a sense of the unknown. The Spartans went a surprising 3-9 last year and were swamped last Saturday by Notre Dame, 38-18, victimized by three turnovers. It is a raw team, with 76 underclassmen on its 111-player roster. And the Spartans have yet to travel this season.
Iowa, meanwhile, is coming off a dispiriting 21-19 loss to No. 4 Penn State on the game’s final play. The game revealed a great deal of promise for the Hawkeyes, but also exacted a physical and emotional toll. Now they must get back up for a punishing road game or face a potentially devastating 0-2 start in Big Ten play, which hasn’t happened since 2008.
“Every single Saturday, every opportunity you have to play a football game, it’s a big deal,” Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said. “It’s like the highest thing you can think of, ‘We’ve got to win today.’”
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Doing so will require Iowa to play as error-free as it did against Penn State. The Hawkeyes won the turnover battle 2-1 and committed only three penalties. Both were areas of concern for coach Kirk Ferentz heading into that game. The Hawkeyes are now even on the year in turnover margin.
The Spartans are minus-6. That has Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio worried, about both the nine his team has coughed up and the mere three his defense has forced.
“We worked hard at creating those. Sometimes they come in batches, sometimes you get hot. But those have to come as well. Those are the equalizing factors in a football game. I think that's how a football game gets lopsided at times,” Dantonio said of a Spartan defense that will be locked in on Iowa sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley, making just his second road start.
“You've got to play with reckless abandon, I think, on the football field and the ball has to come out. Sometimes it gets tipped, sometimes stripped, sometimes mishandled.”
The Hawkeyes have waited two years to get another shot at the Spartans, but the mantra from Iowa’s veteran players was that these are new teams in a new situation.
Still, senior guard Boone Myers said of that 2015 heartbreak: “It’s probably going to hang around the rest of my life, honestly.”
So, yeah, there’s much at stake Saturday for an Iowa team looking to scratch out its first league win while also erasing some of the sting from the most recent Hawkeye-Spartan epic.
But there’s no secret to how this game will be decided.
“There’s two hard-nosed teams going at it,” Myers said. “It’s just line up, put your hand in the dirt and let’s see who wins.”
Iowa (3-1) at Michigan State (2-1)
WHERE: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Mich.
TIME/TV: 3:12 p.m., Fox (announcers: Aaron Goldsmith, Brady Quinn, Bruce Feldman)
LINE: Spartans by 3½
WEATHER: 66 degrees and sunny; winds from north-northeast at 5 mph