IOWA CITY, Iowa - Some exit analysis of Michigan State's 37-21 victory over Iowa, Saturday at Kinnick Stadium:
Michigan State got the ground game going, immediately. The Spartans hit the ground hard for good gains on their first five run attempts. Michigan State hadn't demonstrated this kind of ground might against a reputable team all year.
Next play, first-and-goal, Kirk Cousins passed to B.J. Cunningham on a slant for an 8-yard TD. MSU led 7-0. It was as crisp as the Spartan offense has looked all season.
"Coach (Dan) Roushar came out today running the ball. Prove a point," Bell said. "We ran the ball and that's a good reason why we won this game."
Iowa's run defense is not as good as its been in past years. But that's okay for Michigan State. The Spartans have had trouble running the ball even against mediocre defenses this year. MSU went into the game ranked No. 12 in the Big Ten in rushing offense. But the Spartans rushed for 155, with Bell averaging 5.6 yards per carry on the day.
Late in the first half, Bell had a 24-yard TD run, again out of the shot gun, and a three-WR formation, with McDonald pulling on 'power' action. Is was mixture of MSU inside strength and a spread look.
It was nothing ground-breaking, but these were things Iowa had not seen on film from MSU.
"We felt we needed to have that more in our repertoire," Dantonio said. "I think we were able to hit them on a couple of things. Some of it is just geared toward what we have to be able to do better and geared toward our tendencies. It wasn't like, 'Hey we can do this against Iowa.' It was more us."
With three TD passes and no interceptions, Cousins' TD-to-INT ratio is now a sturdy 16-to-5. He has thrown only one pick since the Ohio State game.
MSU's pass protection was excellent. Iowa does not have a good pass rush, and the Spartans kept it that way. MSU's double-digit lead and success with the ground game helped slow down the Hawkeye pass rushers as well.
The 37 points that MSU scored was the most ever by a Spartan team in Iowa City.
Dan Conroy's 48-yard field goal, to push the lead to 16 points with 2:31 left. Onions.
The following special teams three-pack delivered a flurry of blows that helped yield 14 points in little over two minutes, stretching a 17-7 lead to 31-7:
1. Mike Sadler pounded a 54-yard punt, which was downed at the 2-yard line with 2:59 left in the first half.
2. Four snaps later, Keshawn Martin returned a punt 20 yards to the Iowa 35-yard line.
3. Four plays later, after Bell's 24-yard TD run, Jeremy Gainer caused a fumble on the ensuing kickoff. [On the very next play, Cousins threw a 26-yard TD pass to B.J. Cunningham].
Cunningham was great, on call. He had just four catches for 46 yards, but the 26-yarder was picturesque.
Sadler averaged 46 yards on six punts. The freshman has become a weekly factor. Where does MSU find these guys?
Play Design: Iowa's defense isn't as strong as it usually is, but the Hawkeyes' cover-two is still difficult to crack. On the 26-yard TD to Cunningham, Cousins created an opening in the zone coverage by pump-faking to the flat. This made the cornerback pause momentarily, opening the cover-two window down the sideline just enough to fit the high feed to Cunningham. It was a bit too high, but Cunningham was able to work with it.
The Next Man Up delivered:
1. When Bell's helmet broke, Baker went in for him, ran a route designed for Bell, and turned it into a 17-yard TD reception, the first of Baker's career.
2. When Kurtis Drummond went down with an undisclosed injury in the second half, sophomore Jairus Jones took his place as the fifth DB in the nickel defense. Making his first game appearance of the season in a regular defensive role, Jones hit Iowa tight end Zach Derby, and caused a fumble at the MSU 8-yard line. MSU recovered with 2:53 remaining, essentially wrapping up victory.
Jones sustained an Achilles tendon injury during spring practice in April and didn't return to the practice field until midway through the fall.
"Big play in the game," said Mark Dantonio "We are sort of hanging on (at that point) because they were (in position to) cut it to six or eight.
"He was our nickel back last year. He is a guy that has been on the field, so it was great to see him returning. Jairus Jones is a very good football player and he was an important part of this. He is very well-liked by our team."
The Spartans control their own destiny in the Legends Division. If MSU wins out, they'll play in the Big Ten Championship Game
"We're right where we want to be, with two weeks to go in the regular season," Cousins said.
Strong Quote:Trenton Robinson on the senior class getting its 34th win, breaking a school record held by last year's seniors: "Hopefully it only lasts for one year because I want the next senior class to beat our record and Spartan football will go on."
What about the class after that?
"That sounds good to me," said sophomore Max Bullough. "That's the track we're on right now. With Coach Dantonio getting his players here, I think we're on that track and we're headed for it."
Check Out The Checkdown: Cousins dumped a pass down to Bell for the key play in the critical drive which pushed the lead from 13 points to 16. On third-and-eight at the MSU 34, Cousins threw short over the middle to Bell. Bell got loose for a 45-yard gain, setting up Conroy's field goal.
Inside The Play: Iowa likes to play man-to-man on third-and-long. MSU read the coverage, and wanted to get Bell matched up against Iowa middle linebacker Tyler Nielsen.
"We felt all week that we had a chance there, with Le'veon on the Mike linebacker, to get him open over the middle of the field and it worked just like we hoped it would," Cousins said "You have to credit Le'Veon with getting open and beating his man."
It was a little crossing route.
"I knew the linebacker was on me," Bell said. "My first instinct was to just try to run around him, and beat him. But he kind of played over the top so I went under him. I looked back and Kirk was running, trying to buy time, so I kind of threw my hand up, let him know where I was at, and he threw it to me.
"That's something that we practice all the time. He trusted me to catch the ball."
Play Development: MSU finally was able to attack the seam of a two-deep zone with a pass to the tight end, something the Spartans weren't able to do against Minnesota and didn't try to do at Nebraska.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, with Iowa having grabbed momentum by cutting the lead to 34-21, Cousins momentarily quieted the storm by throwing to Brian Linthicum upfield and into the seam between the two deep safeties for a gain of 21 yards.
When MSU attempted a similar play against Minnesota, Linthicum had trouble getting past the linebacker assigned to cover him. This time, Linthicum seemed to take a more rounded release in getting around the LB, and then was able to get a step of separation.
MSU still hasn't enjoyed the level of game-breaking skill it expected from tight ends this year, due to bumps and dings. But consider this pass progress.
In-Game Adjustments: After Darqueze Dennard went out with an ankle injury, Iowa began attacking Dennard's replacement, Tony Lippett, with star WR Marvin McNutt. MSU's Johnny Adams asked to move from his regular field cornerback station and instead get clearance to cover McNutt regardless of where McNutt lined up. MSU coaches agreed, and McNutt was not heard from again.
"Johnny can play the field side or the strong side, in zone or man, so we could still pretty much call anything and Johnny would be able to cover it," said Trenton Robinson.
Not Good Enough
The fumbled snaps. There were three of them. Two occurred inside the 5-yard line, squandering a chance to get a touchdown in the second quarter.
Center Travis Jackson volunteered to take the blame. Jackson was back in the starting lineup after sitting out the Minnesota game.
"Being out with a concussion last week, we had a little trouble in practice (with snaps)," Jackson said, "but I think it was mainly my fault just not getting it up there, on the goal line especially because you are trying to fire out and sometimes you don't get it out as much. So I take full blame for that. So we'll work on it this week and get it fixed."
There was an additional fumble due to poor ball care in the second quarter when Cousins collided with the fullback on his way to attempting to hand off the ball to the tailback. MSU recovered that one.
A play call MSU would like to have back: On third-and-17 at the Iowa 28-yard line with 7:42 to play, the Spartans led by 13 and badly needed to get a field goal and stretch the lead to 16.
It would have been a 45-yard field goal from that distance. Conroy had already missed from 49.
On third-and-long, Cousins was tackled for a 3-yard loss on what was either the worst quarterback draw ever, or the shortest read and scramble ever. What had been a 45-yarder was stretched to a 48-yarder. Conroy made this field goal, but it shouldn't have been from that distance.
If MSU had that third-and-17 to do over again, they would probably like to execute an inside zone run, which likely would have gone for at least three or four yards, creating a 41-yarder rather than a 48-yarder.
But it all worked out.
William Gholston's personal foul on fourth down with 4:18 to play. Iowa threw an incompletion on fourth-and-eight. MSU was in "two-man" coverage (two deep safeties/man-to-man underneath). MSU runs "two-man" maybe a couple of times per game. It's a well-disguised change-up from their usual quarters zone.
In this case, playing two-man offered MSU the opportunity to stick Adams on McNutt and lock him up. Iowa pased to McNutt, and Adams broke it up.
Four minutes left? Up 16 points. That's pretty much ballgame, right?
Gholston was flagged for a personal foul, getting a hand up into the face of the Iowa right tackle. Uneccessary and unacceptable.
Gholston is one of the more rapidly-improving defensive ends in college football. He is a star, on his way toward becoming a regular, dominating force.
He's had problems with ill-timed fouls in the past. But this one was his worst. It was an undisciplined, selfish play.
Dantonio shook his head in semi-disgust. It didn't appear that Dantonio had many words for Gholston. But that approach isn't working. It's time for Dantonio to go Saban on Gholston, the way Saban did with Robaire Smith after a late hit on Drew Brees on third down at Purdue in 1999, or the way Saban gave it to Ike Reese after a personal foul at Louisville in 1996.
Well, it might hurt recruiting if Dantonio went at Gholston that hard. But the message doesn't seam to be getting through to Gholston. A more aggressive approach seems necessary.
Lippett is slowly getting better at cornerback. He isn't terrible. He's just not quite good enough to cover McNutt. When Iowa went deep to McNutt down the right sideline, Lippett seemed to panic, made excessive contact and was flagged for pass interference. That actually wasn't a bad decision by Lippett. When up 13, and in doubt about possibly getting beat for 70 yards, lock him up, get a flag, line up a again.
For the long-term however, MSU is going to need a back-up corner who can perform better than that. Lippett is headed in that direction. But he's not there yet.
Dennard was nearly cleared to return to the Iowa game. It will be interesting to see if MSU tries to get Dennard another week of rest and sit him out of the Old Brass Spittoon border skirmish with Indiana next week. Lippett could use some extra work, but not at the expense of more broken plays, such as the 64-yard TD error Lipppett had a hand in during the Minnesota game (in fairness, Robinson and Isaiah Lewis missed tackles on that play too, but Lippett was the last chance guy.]
Robinson is nursing a sore shoulder. He would probably welcome a day off, but he won't request one - not on Senior Day.
But if MSU is fortunate to get a comfortable lead against Indiana, the Spartans would like nothing better than to rest Robinson and get some time for a back-up safety. The extent of Drummond's injury is not yet known. Jairus Jones made a huge play late in the game causing the fumble, but Jones didn't look like he was all the way back up to speed when trying to chase down a loose Hawkeye on kickoff coverage.
Some how some way, MSU needs to get some reserve DBs playing fast and ready.
Keith Nichol's dropped pass on third-and-six slant route with 8:40 remaining. Nichol has been a solid, reliable player. He was a hero in the Wisconsin and Minnesota games. He rarely drops passes. In fact, this might have been his first drop since his first game as a WR at the Valero Alamo Bowl. He's been a nice player. But MSU needed him to catch this one. The Spartans won't lose trust in him.