By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Considering the unusual circumstances on and off the field, a 1-2 record has maybe never felt better for the Iowa football team than it does right now.
It, obviously, isn’t where Iowa wanted to be after three games, but Saturday’s 49-7 beat-down against Michigan State at Kinnick Stadium is finally something positive for the Iowa players and coaches, and for the Iowa fans, to embrace and rally behind.
A season that was in danger of slipping off the rails during a global pandemic now at least shows some signs of hope with Iowa finally in the win column.
“It’s been tough the last two weeks coming up short, but we played our butts off, honestly, at all levels, special teams, offense and defense,” said senior left tackle Alaric Jackson. “But the o-line this week we really keyed in on just finishing drives.”
Iowa dominated the line of scrimmage despite being without starting right tackle Coy Cronk and starting guard Kyler Schott for undisclosed reasons.
Iowa used a balanced offense, an aggressive and opportunistic defense and the contributions of Charlie Jones on special teams to put this game away early.
Michigan State only had four first downs in the first half and trailed 35-0 at halftime.
Iowa also scored points in the third quarter for the first time in seven Big Ten games, albeit just seven points, but that’s still an improvement.
Sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras also won for the first time as the Iowa starter, while sophomore running back Tyler Goodson surpassed 100 yards rushing for the second time as a Hawkeye, finishing with 113 yards on 14 carries.
“It most definitely builds confidence for us,” Goodson said. “Being 0-2 was very frustrating, so it’s all about having the mentality and knowing that you can be successful. And that’s what we did today.”
Saturday’s game was a mismatch from start to finish, but was it more a case of Iowa performing exceptionally well or the Spartans performing woefully?
Probably the latter because the Iowa offense did sputter at times in the second and third quarters.
But it didn’t matter because the Spartans just kept committing turnovers on offense, while allowing big plays on defense.
This was the same Michigan State team under first-year head coach Mel Tucker that defeated Michigan 27-24 last Saturday in Ann Arbor, Mich., but that also lost to Rutgers 38-27 in the season opener at home.
So it’s hard to know what to make of the Spartans after three games, while Iowa showed some signs of establishing an identity on offense with Saturday’s performance.
The best thing Iowa did on offense was establish its running game because that made it easier for Petras to operate in the pocket.
Petras was far from spectacular as he completed 15-of-27 passes for 167 yards and one touchdown.
But it didn’t matter because Petras had the running game to support him. He didn’t have to attempt 50 passes as he did the week before against Northwestern because the Spartans had to account for Iowa’s running game.
“In order to be successful, you have to run the ball,” Petras said. “We did a really good job of that today.”
It also didn’t matter that senior receiver and return specialist Ihmir Smith-Marsette was suspended for Saturday’s game after having been charged with drunken driving.
Iowa will certainly need Smith-Marsette in order to reach its full potential on offense, but his absence was a non-factor on Saturday, partly due to Iowa’s performance, but also because of Michigan State’s ineptitude.
Iowa took the opening kick and marched 75 yards for a touchdown on eight plays, including five running plays for 44 yards.
Goodson started the drive with a 6-yard run on first down, and he ended the drive by scoring from three yards with 11:07 left in the first quarter.
Charlie Jones also gained 27 yards on a sweep, while Petras completed all three of his pass attempts on the drive for 36 yards.
It was close to being a perfect drive with how the run helped to support the pass.
“It was extremely important,” Petras said of the opening drive. “It set the tone from the beginning.
“We talked all week, you show up at 11:02 for the kick and be ready to play. And collectively, we did that. It was a great start to the day.”
Michigan State’s opening drive of the game ended abruptly as Iowa free safety Jack Koerner intercepted a pass thrown by quarterback Rocky Lombardi on the sixth play.
An interesting side note to the interception is that Koerner graduated from West Des Moines Dowling, while Lombardi attended rival West Des Moines Valley.
The Iowa offense capitalized on the interception by driving 74 yards for its second touchdown on 10 plays.
Iowa scored on a 14-yard pass from Petras to senior receiver Brandon Smith, who beat single coverage in the corner of the end zone.
Iowa led 14-0 after the first quarter and has now outscored its three opponents 31-7 in the first quarter this season.
The lead swelled to three touchdowns when Goodson sprinted through a massive hole and scored from nine yards with 11:16 remaining in the second quarter.
Jones helped to set up the scoring drive by returning a punt 31 yards to the Michigan State 47.
Michigan State self-destructed again on offense, when on its next possession, Lombardi’s pass was intercepted by Iowa linebacker Barrington Wade, who was tackled at the Spartan 24. It was Wade’s second interception this season.
However, the drive stalled and then Keith Duncan missed on a 37-yard field goal attempt, keeping Iowa’s lead at 21-0.
Iowa’s offense then sort of bogged down in the second quarter as it went 3-and-out on back-to-back possessions.
It didn’t matter, though, as Jones, a walk-on transfer from Buffalo, returned a punt 54 yards for a touchdown late in the second quarter, and cornerback Riley Moss returned Lombardi’s third interception of the first half 54 yards for another touchdown to give Iowa commanding 35-0 lead at halftime.
Jones finished with 143 all-purpose yards.
Moss’s return marked the 13th consecutive season in which an Iowa player has returned an interception for a touchdown.
Iowa now returns to the road where it will face Minnesota on Friday in Minneapolis.
Michigan State 0 0 7 0 – 7
Iowa 14 21 7 7 – 49
I – Tyler Goodson 3 run (Keith Duncan kick)
I – Brandon Smith 14 pass from Spencer Petra (Duncan kick)
I – Goodson nine run (Duncan kick)
I – Charlie Jones 54 punt return (Duncan kick)
I – Riley Moss 54 interception returtn (Duncan kick)
MS – Tyler Hunt 1 run (Matt Coughlin kick)
I – Mekhi Sargent 2 run (Duncan kick)
I – Sargent 6 run (Duncan kick)