EAST LANSING, Mich. — It was an Iowa-Michigan State football game, so of course it was destined to come down to the final minutes at Spartan Stadium.
The Spartans held off the Hawkeyes 17-10 Saturday in another unsightly and strange game between the two teams.
How unsightly? Iowa's final play was a false start at its own 18-yard line, one of seven penalties assessed against the Hawkeyes (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten Conference).
How strange? Iowa’s punter completed a pass to a defensive end, and the play ended up being just a footnote. That’s because Hawkeye quarterback Nate Stanley had the ball slip out of his hands seconds later for an interception, one of two turnovers Iowa committed in Michigan State territory in the second half.
The Spartans (3-1, 1-0), who entered the game minus-6 in turnover margin, did not cough the ball up Saturday.
"We harp on ball security and we want to make sure that when we have it, it stays ours," Iowa wide receiver Matt VandeBerg said. "So when that kind of stuff happens, not only do you take away points but you put your defense in a rough spot. So obviously we can't let that happen."
Michigan State opened the game with a flawless 75-yard touchdown drive. The first play was a 31-yard pass to Felton Davis III. The touchdown came on a 22-yard strike from Brian Lewerke to Davis. Iowa safeties Miles Taylor and Amani Hooker looked lost at times and the defensive line was unable to generate pressure.
Davis, a junior, finished with a career-high nine catches for 114 yards, one week after the Iowa defense couldn't contain Penn State tailback Saquon Barkley in a 21-19 loss.
"We saw basically what they were going to do, but in the heat of the moment we had miscommunications," said Iowa cornerback Michael Ojemudia, who started in place of the injured Manny Rugamba. "They were moving around, trying to get us out of position. So just a little hiccup on our part. The first play was a result of that."
The Hawkeyes corrected those problems, but couldn’t make up for poor field position minutes later.
The Spartans pushed the lead to 14-0 after an ineffective punt by Iowa’s Colten Rastetter put them at the Hawkeyes’ 31-yard line. It took 10 plays to reach the end zone, but Lewerke lofted a 6-yard scoring pass to Davis, who leapt to grab it over Ojemudia.
It wasn't apparent at the time, but that play ended up being the game-winner.
The Hawkeyes responded with a 72-yard drive of their own, including key first-down pickups by VandeBerg and tight end Noah Fant. Quarterback Nate Stanley connected with Ihmir Smith-Marsette for 31 yards on a third-and-8 play that was the biggest of the drive. Tailback Akrum Wadley scampered in from 9 yards out to make it a 14-7 score with 12 minutes, 15 seconds left in the half. His first six carries had produced zero total yards.
The teams later traded field goals. But Iowa, plagued by poor field position, could never mount a tying drive.
The Hawkeyes started four possessions inside their 10-yard line. Iowa amassed minus-2 yards on those four drives. Its final two drives of the game yielded two yards and an 0-2 start to Big Ten play for the first time in nine years.
"It didn't make things any easier today," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of the field-position woes. "But part of the challenge there is it's going to happen during the course of the season. It was three times in the first half today and what we're going to have to do is move the ball out of there. Not necessarily sustain a drive for a score, but move the ball out so we can change field position."