On a clear and breezy Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, the Spartans returned the 1st Half knockout blow they took in Iowa City last year.  MSU did more than enough in their 31-7 first 30:00 to hold off a firm Iowa push down the stretch.  In a physical one that wore both teams down towards the end, MSU closed out its second win of this “playoff month” of November.  More than that, Spartan Football made another strong statement to country, that they could take a big punch one year and then get back up the next to land a big one of their own.

After winning the toss and taking the ball, a Touchback started Iowa at their 20.  Their drive stalled out early when Hawkeye standout Marvin McNutt (Sr. WR) dropped a 3rd and 7 pass that would’ve moved the chains.  The day’s first punt was shank into the wind that only went 26-yards, leaving MSU at their 36.  It was the Spartan Defense’s best start in a while.

Le’Veon Bell (So. RB) came out running with power and led MSU quickly into Iowa territory.  After Bell needed a break, Edwin “Rock” Baker (Jr. RB) picked up where he left off.  Baker took off for 12 yards on a 1st down, and had 15 more tacked for an Iowa Face Mask.  The Spartans were suddenly threatening from the 6.  Kirk Cousins (Rs.-Sr. QB) wasted no time as he found his top target cutting across the middle, B.J. Cunningham (Rs.-Sr. WR), for the easy looking score.  It was a very clean 8 play, 64-yard drive, and the Spartans’ best start on the road all year.

After another Kevin Muma (Rs.-So K) Touchback, the Snarlin’ Narduzzis looked to sharpen their early edge.  Johnny Adams (Rs.-Jr. CB) made that happen on the second play of the drive when he tipped and then picked a James Vandenberg (Rs.-Jr. QB) pass up the sideline.  Not only did Adams secure the turnover, he took it 30 yards to the Hawkeye 19.  The opportunity was there for the Spartans to deliver a big-early blow.

Facing the prospect of a 14-0 hole, Iowa’s Defense forced a 3rd and 8 from the 17.  But Dan Roushar had a little wrinkle the Hawkeyes couldn’t quite handle.  As Edwin Baker flew out of the backfield and out into coverage, Iowa didn’t have an answer.  And as Baker pulled in a beautifully thrown back-shoulder fade, the Spartans were in the End Zone again less than 2:00 after their first trip of the day.

A third straight Muma-Touchback later, Iowa had to get something going Offensively.  They couldn’t do much though, as the rolling-downhill Spartan D had them a 3rd and 11 on the drive’s fourth play.  Vandenberg found McNutt over the middle a yard or two short of the marker, but McNutt couldn’t shake the swarm of Green who brought him down short.  The Hawks were back to punt again, but this one was better, and left MSU to begin at their 16.

Three plays later, the Spartans were quickly near Iowa territory, but could get no further than the 41 before Cousins wisely threw it away to force a downwind punt.  Though it sounds a bit strange, Cousins had his best game of the year in terms of throwing the ball away when needed.  Last week’s Big Ten honoree Mike Sadler (Rs.-Fr. P) got off a good punt again as it rolled out at the Iowa 17.

McNutt immediately got the Iowa drive going with a flash though as he pulled a ball in with one hand and ran 30-yards to give Kinnick some life.  Two plays later, after Darqueze Dennard (So. CB) left with an injury, McNutt came across the backfield on a reverse and took it for 19 down to the MSU 33.  The Iowa Offense began to find its rhythm.  Vandenberg then threw to Steven Staggs (Jr. WR) for 17-yards, and the Hawkeyes were into the Spartan Red Zone.  As the 1st Quarter ran out, the Hawks were inside the 10.

The Quarter was the type of hot start the Spartans needed.  Defensively they stuffed Iowa early, and (Adams specifically) made a big play to turn Iowa over.  Offensively, they moved it well on the ground (50 yards), through the air (46 yards), and converted for points off the turnover.  It was close to a perfect start.

Iowa completed their 7 play, 83-yard scoring drive on the first snap of the 2nd as Vandenberg scrambled right and then threw a rainbow back the other way to C.J. Fiedorowicz (So. TE) for the score.  It was the drive Iowa needed to calm the possibility of going down early an insurmountable three scores, and make it 14-7.

With Kinnick Stadium brought to life for the first time of the day, MSU took over at the Iowa 20 and faltered on the 1st down snap.  Cousins lost the handle as he went to hand it off to Baker, but fortunately recovered it to avoid a major momentum swing.  It would be far from the last issue of that type for the day.  Two snaps later, MSU faced 3rd and 11, and the quickly awakening “Black Out” crowd.  Cousins found Cunningham for 9, but Iowa closed hard to force the Sadler punt.

Sadler’s 43-yarder rolled out at the Iowa 29, and Iowa had safely steadied their shaky early ship.  Looking to even it up at 14, the Hawks ran into a stiff Spartan D.  Standing their ground just well enough, MSU slowed the Iowa momentum to force a 4th and 1 punt that Keshawn Martin (Sr. WR) fair caught at the MSU 13.

A heavy dose of Bell and nice completion to Keith Nichol (Rs.-Sr. WR) set up an MSU 3rd and 6 from the 30.  Cousins dropped back, threw it a bit late, but found Martin in plenty of open space.  When that happens, Defenses usually pay.  This time, Martin danced and dashed for 67 hard earned yards all the way to the Iowa 3.  It would prove one of the biggest plays of the day.

After bobbling the snap on 1st down and throwing it away on 2nd, MSU looked at 3rd and Goal with a full backfield.  Yet, the snap was again mishandled and fallen on, bringing Dan Conroy (Rs.-Jr. PK) in for the easy chip shot to put MSU up 17-7.  The Spartans essentially gave Iowa 4-points there as they extended their lead to 10.  It was an 8 play, 82-yard drive, but golden opportunity missed.

Iowa looked to have a big return working on the Muma kick off, but that was brought back with a flag for a block in the back.  Iowa instead started at their 19.  The drive would be further defined by Hawkeye penalties as two more forced a 3 and Out.  Busy Iowa Punter Eric Guthrie (Sr. P) got off a 41-yarder, setting MSU up at their 38 with 4:51 to go.  With MSU getting the ball to start the 3rd, the Spartans had the chance to break the game open and take it over for good.

The drive started poorly as Brian Linthicum (Rs.-Sr. TE) was flagged for a 10-yard block in the back.  Facing 3rd and 4, Iowa’s Defense lined up for what was arguably the biggest down of the Half.  Cousins lined up from the shotgun, but threw incomplete to Cunningham over the middle, which was short of the 1st down marker anyway.  Worse, he came down very hard, helmet first, and looked woozy as he was helped off the field.

Sadler shined again, this time with his best punt of the day.  The 54-yarder was downed at the Iowa 2!  Talk about clutch, Iowa was forced to start starring at their Goal Line with 2:52 left.  No easy “run out the clock” ending from there.  Iowa stopped quickly into a 3rd and 8.  Tony Lippett (Rs.-Fr. CB) was in at Corner Back for Dennard, and dropped what would’ve been an easy pick-six, leaving Iowa instead to punt from their End Zone.

Martin took the fine 51-yard punt down to the Iowa 35.  After a scary 1st down Screen attempt which was deflected and nearly intercepted, Cousins continued the hurry up (but not rushed) attack and looked again to break the game open.  A Linthicum completion later to the 25, and Iowa was set deeply in their heels.  Le’Veon Bell made them pay on the very next snap with a powerful 25-yard TD run.  The draw play was highlighted by a Chris McDonald (Rs.-Jr.) block that gave Bell the room to get going.  Once he got going, MSU was off and running to a 24-7 lead, and looking for a shot to close out their own 1st Half knockout at Kinnick.

Muma’s kick off was caught cleanly by Jordan Bernstine (Sr. DB) around the 20, but a swarm of Spartans quickly closed in.  Bernstine foolishly tried to find extra yards that clearly were not there, and ended up making a critical and game changing mistake.  Jeremy Gainer (Rs.-So. LB) appeared the one to pop the ball out for MSU, and Jeremy Langford (Rs.-Fr. RB) came up with the recovery at the Iowa 28.

The Spartans had 1:48 left and one Time Out to work with.  MSU had their arm cocked and ready to return the KO punch.  Two plays later, B.J. Cunningham leaped over Micah Hyde (Jr. DB) (yes, the guy who caught the lateral after the Cousins INT last year and went 66-yards to put them up 17-0), to grab the 22-yard TD toss and deliver the early dagger.  Kinnick Stadium was completely stunned in silence.

On the ensuing drive, Iowa scampered for life from their 17 and got out to their 39 before a notable 2nd and 10.  Vandenberg ran for the sideline and was popped hard by Denicos Allen (Rs.-So. LB) before he stepped out.  Still, it was a mindless play by Allen, who was flagged for a heavy 15 yards anyway, right in front of his unhappy Head Coach.  Iowa got 5 more from there to set up a Field Goal try from the MSU 32 as time ran out.  That 50-yarder never had a chance as it was blocked rudely by Jerel Worthy (Rs.-Jr. DT), sending the Spartans into the half with an intimidating exclamation point.  The Spartans had knocked the Hawkeyes out cold.

After being KO’d in the 1st Half last year, MSU punched back with a three-score thumping of its own.  In Spartan Football’s most dominant 1st Half of the Dantonio era, MSU had the edge all over the place.  They led on the ground 91-68, through the air 178-121 (3 TD strikes from Cousins), and thanks to the two game changing turnovers, 31-7 in a stadium the program hadn’t tasted victory in since 1989.

MSU took the kick to start the 3rd looking for anything to extend their lead beyond three scores.  After going 3 and Out, Sadler booted another fine punt, and then the Defense forced Iowa into its own short lived 3 and Out series.

MSU moved steadily back into the Iowa end, but ended up facing a 4th and 2 from the 25.  It looked like a standard spot for a Field Goal try, but Dantonio instead called an eye brow raising fake.  Holder Brad Sontagg (Rs.-Sr. WR) took the snap and ran past the chains as the Spartans wanted to build on their early statement.

The Iowa Defense stiffened though, and Conroy had to come out for a 31-yarder to extend the lead to 34-7.  If it wasn’t completely over before then, it was all but over from there.  For Iowa, there were just too many points to come back from and too little time to realistically do so.  Yet, to the Hawkeyes’ credit, they didn’t go away quietly.  In fact, they played their best ball from that point on.

Iowa’s spirited fight was sparked by a 61-yard Bernstine return on a shorter Muma kick.  That drive was stretched to the limit, but converted for a TD on a 4th and Goal from the 3.  After an MSU 3 and Out, Marvin McNutt stretched the field with a 48-yard catch and run to put Iowa deep into the MSU end in the third-period’s final minutes.  As Marcus Coker (So. RB) ran in from the 2-yard line to make it 34-21, Iowa had dominated the second-half of the 3rd Quarter to cut the lead to 13.

Despite their continuing effort, and more than a couple of plays that looked promising as they developed, Iowa was shut out for the entire 4th Quarter.  In a period that featured a banged up Spartan Defense continually booed as players were helped off the field by their Training Staff, the Spartans closed out Iowa for good with another Conroy-Field Goal.

After missing a 49-yard try with about 12:30 to go, Conroy extended the lead to a safe-for-good 16 points after a clutch drive about midway through the 4th.  The drive nearly stalled out again early, but Kirk Cousins wouldn’t give the Kinnick Stadium faithful any more hope that a historic comeback was again at hand.  Facing a 3rd and 8 from their own 34, Cousins made his best play of the day by finding Bell over the middle for the 1st.  Bell had space though, built speed, and made Iowa pay with a huge run after the catch, weaving his way to the Iowa 21.

From the 21, the MSU Offense did very little, including what looked like a QB draw on a 3rd and 17 that went nowhere.  Thus, Conroy came out for the slightly redeeming effort, and this time made the downwind 48-yarder to put MSU again up two full scores, 37-21.

Iowa’s final hopes were dashed after they built a drive with Vandenberg’s passing, and stupid MSU penalties.  Facing a 3rd and 5 at the MSU 20, Vandenberg converted with a clean pass to Zach Derby (Jr. TE), but Derby coughed it up just as cleanly on a strip from the then forced into action Jarius Jones (So. S).  Tony Lippett was right there for the recovery, and Iowa’s impressive late push was finally out of oomph.

The 1st Half KO stood up.  The Spartans were leaving Iowa City with the “W,” and just as importantly, with the Legends Division lead.  It was another statement game in the Spartans’ statement making 2011 season.  Dogged all year by national (especially the 4-letter pundits) critics as not worthy of either last year’s, or this year’s record, Spartan Football spoke loud and clearly once again today.  Under Dantonio, the Spartans have now beaten every other Big Ten team (other than Nebraska) on the road.  Today they did it with a 1st Half haymaking combination that left the Iowa Hawkeyes too far behind to respond.

It was exactly the reply needed to the beating last year.  It was exactly the message to be sent for their critics to choke one.  And best of all for Spartan Nation, it realistically puts the first Spartan hand on the 2011 Big Ten-Legends Division trophy.

Today’s Three Stars

1.

Kirk Cousins—Complete redemption from last year.  He set the tone and showed the maturity his team needed to earn the monster road “W.”  One of his best days as a Spartan.

2.

Le’Veon Bell—The Offense’s most effective play maker today, Bell rolled on the ground (112 yards, 1 TD) and through the air (2 balls, 49 yards).  He made plays in the 2nd Half to keep Iowa at a safe enough distance.

3.

Dan Conroy—When you win by 16, you don’t instantly think of Place Kicker as making a great difference.  But today Conroy made 3 out of 4 Field Goals, and closed the door for good with his 4th Quarter 48-yarder.

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