EAST LANSING, Mich. — Upon Michigan State’s first snap, quarterback Brian Lewerke faked a handoff. The Iowa defense bit, creating a hole for Felton Davis in the secondary. Lewerke found him for 31 yards.
There was no foreshadowing from the Spartans. They wanted to get Davis the ball early.
They got him the ball often in the first half and the Hawkeyes’ inability to stop him directly led to Michigan State picking up the 17-10 win on Saturday.
“His numbers coming into the game were off the charts and he proved to be a tough matchup,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He ran good routes today and the quarterback did a nice job of finding him and getting the ball to him, and was a big factor in the game.”
The biggest playmaker
How the Iowa-Michigan game unfolded wasn’t a surprise. Two physical defenses stood tall. Yards were hard to gain. Points were even tougher. This is how these games typically go. A few big play dictate who wins.
And it seemed like Davis made every offensive play that mattered.
He recorded a career-high 9 receptions for 114 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Hawkeyes couldn’t stop him and it was as big a reason why they lost as an offense that couldn’t move the football.
“He is a big dude, fast and can run,” cornerback Michael Ojemudia said.
Davis is a physical specimen. He stands 6-foot-4, 195 pounds. He is quick enough to run around a defender and tall enough to come down with a jump ball, even when a defensive back is in position.
Ojemudia saw it all firsthand. Davis ended up as his primary coverage assignment in the first quarter. Ojemudia started because of an injury to cornerback Manny Rugamba. It occurred during the Penn State game last week, but the Hawkeyes didn’t find out about it the night of the game.
“He got better during the week and kept trying to climb the ladder but couldn’t go today,” Ferentz said. “No sense putting a guy out there that can’t go 100 percent and hopefully he’ll be back next week.”
Playing down a defender
The loss of Rugamba hurt. He entered the season as the top cornerback on the depth chart, although his play was inconsistent upon his return to the lineup.
He is a key part of a secondary that overachieved through the first five games. Would his presence have impacted Davis’ day? It’s impossible to know, but without him the Hawkeyes struggled to stop Davis.
Ojemudia learned he was starting hours before the game. His first thought? Step up and make plays.
He did a good job filling in when Rugamba was suspended for violating team rules in the opener. Ojemudia made progress over the next month.
But this wasn’t his day. It wasn’t anyone’s day when it came to defending Davis.
Davis got behind Hooker for his first catch. Davis hauled in a 22-yard touchdown six plays later. On Michigan State’s second possession, Ojemudia defended Davis on a jump ball in the end zone. There wasn’t anything he could do to keep Davis from using his height to haul in the 6-yard score.
“You got to play good,” Ojemudia said when asked about the challenge Davis posed. “That is why we play Division I football. We try to play through it and do the best you can.”
Big plays early mattered most
All the Spartans needed was 2 touchdowns in under 13 minutes. Plays that decide a game can come at any point. Davis caught 5 passes for 73 yards in Michigan State’s first three series.
In retrospect, those catches helped decide the game before some players broke a sweat. It didn’t matter that the Hawkeyes kept the Spartans to only a field goal and 168 total yards the rest of the way.
“That starts off with us in the first half,” linebacker Josey Jewell said. “We didn’t play how we wanted to, being efficient, moving all hats to the ball. We didn’t do that right in the first half. We made some mental mistakes, missed tackles, things that are going to bite you later. We need to play the full four quarters to win games like that.”
It wasn’t just on the defense. The punting was bad, forcing the defense into tough spots time and again. The run game was non-existent. Turnovers were a problem and so was moving the football. Iowa had six three-and-outs.
“There are a lot of good football players on that team,” Jewell said. “You have to be ready for anything. You can’t really single anybody out. Have to play a team effort and be accountable to every position on the field.”
You can single out how the Spartans scored their touchdowns. They showed their hands early.
It was a steady dose of Davis. The Hawkeyes knew it was coming and there was nothing they could do to stop it.
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