History isn’t smiling, granted, but history’s been full of it before. Wisconsin rallied from a 1-2 record in the league last fall to march to the Big Ten Championship Game. If there’s any salve for Iowa fans after the Hawkeyes’ 17-10 wounding at Michigan State, it’s that it can be done.
Beyond that, well … let’s put it this way: It’s too early to put Indianapolis on a wing.
But it might be a prayer.
If Penn State was a soul-crusher at the last, what the devil was Saturday? Slow torture?
It’s not even October, and just close enough to break your heart is getting old already.
Basically, the margin for error is gone now, and the Hawkeyes (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten) blinked. Again. Under Kirk Ferentz and Mark Dantonio, Iowa-Michigan State has become the Big Ten’s version of a staring contest. Smash-mouth versus smash-mouth, tough versus tough, fundamentally sound versus fundamentally sound, a battle as much about will as it is relative skill.
From the series record — Iowa led 23-21-2 before its latest setback — to the chains, the narrative rarely strays too far: Fine margins rule, and the losers rue.
And, in this installment, the Hawkeyes were left to ponder a third quarter of self-inflicted wounds that ranged from the surreal to the darkly comic.
Not that you’d find Ferentz laughing, of course.
The first drive of the third quarter ended with a pick at the Michigan State 5.
The next one ended with Brandon Smith fumbling away a screen along the right boundary at the Spartans’ 35.
Tally the potential points in your head and cue the migraine.
The Hawkeyes came into Saturday having lost the battle of the turnover margin 19 times since the fall of 2013.
The record in these tilts: 5 up, 14 down.
Whatever the opposite of a Heisman Trophy moment is, quarterback Nate Stanley had it with 9:52 left in the third period and Iowa threatening to cut into a 17-7 deficit.
Stanley stepped up to escape pressure on third-and-goal at the Michigan State 5, only to have the ball slip his grasp like a wet bar of soap and wind up plucked by Michigan State linebacker Joe Bachie at the 7 before it hit the ground.
— Ethan (@ethancoston) September 30, 2017
And welcome to the recurring theme of the afternoon, on a day in which the Hawkeyes opened on the back foot and never seemed to find solid earth.
The Spartans’ average starting field position in the first half was the Michigan State 44. The hosts’ average starting field position on scoring drives over the first two quarters was the Iowa 47. Flipping the field is a tough task if your punter’s lofting lollipops.
And even a good defense can spend only so much time with its backs pinned against the wall before the bruises start to show. Nor did it help that the Spartans wasted no time in picking on sophomore cornerback Michael Ojemudia with 6-foot-4 wideout Felton Davis III (7 receptions for 88 yards and 2 scores in the first half).
Although history did have the courtesy to warn us that this was coming. The last five meetings at Spartans Stadium between these two, dating to 2001, had been decided by an average margin of 4.2 points, with the Hawkeyes having won two straight before the weekend. In other words, maybe this is the Big Ten series still dangling that’s most badly in need of a trophy.
And, after Saturday, a handful of aspirin, too.
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