EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio walked off the Spartan Stadium field after all of his players had already departed on Saturday night, soaking in the atmosphere with a wide grin on his face.
His Spartans (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) had secured a hard-earned 17-10 win over Iowa (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten). He had plenty of reason to be happy. But he didn’t let it show until the final whistle.
“I wasn’t smiling too often out there,” Dantonio said. “It was pretty intense. Big win. It’s a big win. And it’s in Spartan Stadium. And it’s a gut win. And when you win with guts or you win with toughness or you win with effort, that makes your coach happy.”
Michigan State won with the guts it showed against Iowa the last time these two teams battled, a 16-13 victory in the 2015 Big Ten championship game. In fact, it may have been the first time since that game that the Spartans played with such guts.
Just the night before, the Spartans had all watched the movie “Southpaw,” a boxing story, and focused on the final fight in particular. So instead of folding in the fourth quarter the next evening, like it so often did in 2016, Michigan State tightened.
“Coach D told the team, ‘This is going to be a 12-round fight,’ ” senior linebacker Chris Frey said. “This is just like going to war, going to a boxing match. We went into the last series like, ‘This is the 12th round. It’s time to finish it.’ ”
And they did. Iowa took the ball at its own 16-yard line with 45 seconds left, looking to tie things up. The Spartans didn’t budge. Tackle Raequan Williams hurried but just missed quarterback Nate Stanley. On second down, defensive end Demetrius Cooper didn’t miss, forcing a fumble in the process of sacking Stanley. Iowa recovered, but the loss of time effectively ended the game.
Michigan State didn’t win with its offense. It managed 300 yards of offense after passing 450 in each of its first three games. Quarterback Brian Lewerke led the team in rushing with 42 yards. The Spartans scored early — 14 points in the first quarter — and relied on the rest of the squad to close it out.
“I think the defense was incredible [Saturday],” Lewerke said. “They stepped up when we needed them, when the offense wasn’t finishing drives like we needed to. I think they definitely were the better of the two [Saturday].”
After the 38-18 loss to Notre Dame the week before, Dantonio lamented the turnovers. When his team had been a perennial powerhouse from 2013-15, winning two Big Ten titles and two Rose Bowls, it had led the Big Ten in turnover margin. Going into Saturday, the Spartans’ average margin of minus-2 ranked third worst in the nation.
A bit of fortune changed things. In the third quarter, Stanley went back into his throwing motion and the ball popped out. Sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie dove to reel it in. The referees called it a fumble. The press box announcer called it an interception. Eventually, the stat book ruled it a fumble. Bachie didn’t care either way.
This play was something, wasn't it? pic.twitter.com/mF9sFfXh5c
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) September 30, 2017
“I have no idea,” when asked which he thought it was. “When that thing went up in the air, I kind of blanked out and just caught the ball. I wasn’t sure if it was a fumble or an interception. I just knew I caught it.”
That gave Michigan State its first fumble recovery of the season, and on Iowa’s next drive, Frey jumped on a second. The Spartans would win the turnover battle 2-0.
And that wasn’t the only thing reminiscent of more successful Michigan State teams that hadn’t been seen in awhile. The Spartans won the field position battle, with Jake Hartbarger dropping 4 punts inside the Iowa 10-yard line.
They got after the quarterback, sacking Stanley 3 times and hurrying him 8 more. After a 2016 season in which the Spartans averaged fewer than 1 sack per game, it was a welcome change.
They looked a bit like the Spartans of old, at least for a game. Sure, 2015 wasn’t that long ago, but to Michigan State fans enduring 10 losses since then, it probably feels that way. This time around, the Spartans gave them something different. Dantonio sure enjoyed it.
“Another white-knuckle game — what you love,” he said. “It keeps you going.”
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