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Michigan State 37, Iowa 21: The [Bleep] Happens Game

My apologies for the delay in this recap, but after every few lines I had to stop and have a doctor look at my hands. I'm good now, though.

First, the happy thoughts:

That was an amazing catch, was it not? Marvin McNutt certainly came to play on Senior Day. 8 receptions for 130 yards and a touchdown, plus two rushes for 27 yards -- that's a pretty good day at the office, as well as Marvin's fourth straight game of 100+ yards, which seems like it might be an Iowa record. Speaking of records... Marvin also checked off a few more notches in the Iowa record book yesterday. Most receiving yards in a career? Yep: he's at 2635 yards now, ahead of DJK's previous record of 2616 yards. Most receiving yards in a single season? Yep: he's at 1089 yards now, in front of Keith Chappelle's previous mark of 1037 yards, set in 1980. The touchdown catch added to the career touchdown mark he already owns (26 and counting). He's also closing in on a few more records: he's at 65 receptions for the season, 17 behind the season record of 82 that Kevin Kasper set in 2000; he's also at 153 receptions for his career, 20 behind DJK's mark set last year. And he's one more touchdown catch away from tying the all-time single-season mark there (currently set by Mo Brown in 2002). Watching Marvin develop as a receiver has been one of the greatest joys of watching Iowa football over the last three years; let's be sure to savor the last few games we have to watch him do his thing.

Shit happens. In many ways, this was the sort of game Iowa had been long overdue for: a fairly decisive ass-kicking. We almost saw it a few months ago when Pitt put Iowa in an early hole and the Iowa offense was utterly anemic for the better part of three quarters, but James Vandenberg and his receivers managed to pull the biggest comeback in Iowa history out of their asses in that game. No such historic comeback was forthcoming here, though. Instead, Iowa was just comprehensively beaten by a better team. The first half of this game was the freaky funhouse mirror version of last year's first half against MSU: last year the Iowa offense made big plays and the defense forced costly turnovers, leading to a 30-0 Iowa lead at the half; this year the MSU offense was the one making big plays and their defense forced the costly turnovers, leading to a 31-7 MSU lead at the half.

The Spartans were also the luckier team in this game (just as Iowa was last year). That's not to say that they were undeserving winners -- far from it -- but rather an indication that virtually all of the critical plays went Sparty's way yesterday. Four fumbled snaps? All recovered by MSU. Tanner Miller an inch away from a potentially momentum-turning interception in the first half? Turns into a huge pass play for MSU. A Vandenberg pass dies in the air? And falls into the waiting arms of an MSU cornerback, who returns it inside the Iowa 20. Another Vandenberg pass died in the air? McNutt fails to haul it in and strut in for an untouched touchdown when the game was still vaguely in doubt in the second half. A terrible Kirk Cousins pass bounces high in the air? Broderick Binns just misses grabbing the interception when the momentum had swung in Iowa's favor in the second half. Jordan Bernstine fumbles for the first time all season a kickoff return? Michigan State recovers and tacks on another touchdown just before halftime. Again, this is not "lucky" in any sort of pejorative sense -- it's just an indication that they made the critical plays in the game yesterday. Just like Iowa did last year. Sometimes shit happens. Which is not to say that Iowa didn't do plenty of things to make things worse on themselves...

When special teams attack. Special teams have been a consistent bugaboo for Iowa in recent years, although this year the special teams had quietly been fairly decent, at least in terms of the things that stats measure: punts, field goals and extra points, kickoff coverage, punt coverage, kickoff returns, and punt returns. (Well, okay, they aren't good at punt returns, but I think we all know that.) So they picked a really bad time to have by far their worst special teams performance of the season. The special teams woes started with Eric Guthrie's miserable 26-yard punt on Iowa's first possession, setting up Michigan State near midfield. Near the end of the half*, Guthrie got off his best punt of the day (51 yards)... and Iowa promptly gave up a 20-yard return to Keshawn Martin to the Iowa 35, setting up a Sparty touchdown. Then Bernstine fumbled the ensuing kickoff, again setting up Michigan State in easy range of a touchdown. Add on a blocked field goal by Mike Meyer at the end of the half (albeit a 50-yarder, so it wasn't a gimme) and you have a perfectly miserable half of special teams. The second half didn't have any glaring errors, but the damage had been done. Iowa could ill afford to spot Michigan State so many free yards.

* That was also set up by Micah Hyde declining to field a punt, allowing Michigan State to pin Iowa back at their own 2-yard line. While Hyde's tendency to shy away from fielding punts has been a recurring annoyance this year, it was probably the correct decision here: punt returners are usually taught to let the ball bounce inside the 5-10 yard line. Unfortunately, the ball just died when it got inside the Iowa 5, which allowed Michigan State to down it at the 2-yard line. C'est la vie.

Y U NO TACKLE BETTER? Poor tackling is not exactly a novel complaint, but it was on full display against Michigan State yesterday. After a game in which Iowa managed to tackle fairly well (until Michigan's last few fourth quarter drives, at least), they reverted back to their season standard yesterday: poor. There's no point singling out particular players, since virtually every defender had a play or five where they whiffed on a tackle. The bad tackling compounded another defensive problem, which was shockingly poor play by the secondary. After some rough moments early in the season, the secondary seemed like it had settled into a semi-respectable level of play. No one was going to mistake them for the 08, 09, or 10 Iowa secondaries (at all); at the very least they seemed like the best unit on Iowa's defense (damning with faint praise, perhaps). Yesterday they were in utter disarray, particularly Micah Hyde, who got skinned alive by Sparty receivers on more than one occasion (but most notably on the touchdown to B.J. Cunningham just before halftime). On a more positive note, the defense did look better in the second half: they forced a trio of three and outs, which helped Iowa's noble failure of a comeback effort.

Run run run, punt punt punt. There weren't a lot of egregious tactical errors yesterday, but the ones that were made were costly. Taking the ball over the wind at the start of the game was a rotten move in hindsight (it certainly would have been nice to have the wind at Vandenberg's back in the fourth quarter) and at the time (windy days are essentially the only situations where Ferentz is actually okay with not taking the ball on the opening kickoff, so why not follow that pattern yesterday?). But one of the most debilitating decisions was the playcalling when Michigan State pinned Iowa back to their own 2-yard line with 2:59 to go. At that point Iowa was down 17-7 and leaking oil; they needed to keep the deficit to a manageable figure and regroup at halftime. Keeping the ball out of Michigan State's hands was paramount (bleeding clock would have been nice, but it was also going to be challenging since Michigan State had timeouts to use). So Iowa ran Marcus Coker into the teeth of the MSU defense on first and second down, setting up a third and long, which Iowa (shock!) failed to convert. Moments later Iowa was down 31-7 and the game was effectively on ice.

I get that Coker has been a beast for Iowa over the last month, but running him into the teeth of the MSU defensive front was a low percentage play all day Saturday: only five of his runs all game went for 5 or more yards and many went for one yard or no yards. Michigan State was all too happy to see Coker trying to plow his way through the middle of the line Saturday because the odds were that he wasn't going to do too much damage to them that way. This was a situation begging for more creative playcalling: a little play-action, a little shotgun, something, anything other than what we saw. They badly needed a few first downs to, at the very least, bleed out of the rest of the first half or allow them to flip field position. Going three and out and giving the ball back to Michigan State near midfield was all but ensuring more points would be scored. Which is precisely what happened.

The Fainting Sparties? I tried to give Michigan State the benefit of the doubt in the second half when their players started dropping like flies with injuries. I was annoyed with Iowa fans for booing them; I'd been annoyed at witnessing Michigan State fans booing injured Iowa players (most notably Colin Sandeman) in 2009, so I wasn't eager to see Iowa fans engaging in the same behavior. But the sheer volume of their injuries was suspicious, not to mention the fact that many of the exact same players who were forcing official timeouts to deal with their injuries were returning to the game a few plays later. I began wondering if the Spartans had been replaced by the Italian national soccer team at halftime, or if the Spartan trainers at least had a sizable supply of soccer's infamous "magic spray" on the sidelines. And my suspicion only grew after reading quotes like this from Jerel Worthy:

When an offense is moving like that the smart move is to just go down and just take your time and don’t kind of rush through it, but that’s what we went out, that’s what we went out there and did," Worthy said. "But at the same time, regardless of the injuries, we played our best ball this week and regardless of the injuries, we still went out there and dominated.

Look, he is right: they played their best ball and they deserved to win. They didn't win because they (allegedly) faked injuries. And I'm no doctor: I don't know if they truly were injured or not. But if they weren't and they were faking those injuries (or if not faking them, then milking them excessively)... fuck them and fuck Mark Dantonio. He was already a duplicitous, hypocritical shitbird of a coach; this would just be more fuel for that opinion. It increasingly looks like we're headed to a Michigan State-Wisconsin rematch in the Big Ten Championship Game and personally I won't have any trouble rooting for the Badgers in that game.

Fight (back) for Iowa. All that said, I was pleased with the way Iowa played in the second half of that game. We're certainly beyond the point where moral victories carry any sort of value, but after a first half in which damn near everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong, it would have been all too easy for the players to throw in the towel on the game. They emphatically did not do that: the defense forced stops and the offense strung together drives and scored touchdowns; by the end of the third quarter, it genuinely felt like Iowa really did have a shot at the comeback. That didn't happen (obviously), but it was better than watching them roll over and die and lose, say, 45-7.