After last week's crushing defeat to Wisconsin, Iowa had two ways of responding. It could have lost a second straight home game, which would have marked this season as a disappointment, or it could have come out angry, ready to redeem its season.
The Hawkeyes chose the latter.
After last week's loss, Clayborn was very emotional, calling out his team for not practicing hard enough. It seemed likely that he and his defensive teammates would come out determined to redeem themselves after last week's disappointing performance. But for the first time this season, Clayborn and company did more than that; they exceeded expectations.
The vaunted MSU rushing attack was held to 31 yards by the Iowa defense, and the Spartans' running backs averaged an abysmal 1.55 yards per carry.
After being manhandled by the Wisconsin offensive line, the Iowa defensive line pressured Michigan State's quarterbacks all day, generating pressure despite only recording one sack.
The Iowa defensive line played with added intensity Saturday, an intensity the Spartans couldn't match. And for maybe the first time this year, it played like the top-ranked defensive line that it was said to be in August.
Like the front four, the pass defense sent a message as well, tonight. After gaining a reputation as a ballhawking brick wall in 2009, the Hawkeye secondary had underperformed so far this season.
The Hawkeyes came into the game with three interceptions and added three more. Sure, there were times that the unit, which plays with a bend-don't-break philosophy, bent too much, but it was there to make the big plays when it counted.
Iowa's secondary rediscovered its ballhawking self of 2009, and safety Tyler Sash rediscovered his Halloween magic nearly a year after his pinball interception that sparked a comeback against Indiana.
Sash intercepted a Kirk Cousins pass late in the first quarter and pitched the ball back to Micah Hyde, who ran it back for a touchdown and a 17-0 Iowa lead.
Every starting member of the secondary had an interception except for Hyde, whose touchdown was his consolation prize.
The Iowa secondary made a statement tonight. It looked like a different unit than it did against Wisconsin. At last it looked like it was supposed to look.
Like Iowa's other two defensive units, its linebacker corps sent a message Saturday. Starting two freshmen, the unit was supposed to have trouble against the passing game. Not today.
The freshman duo of James Morris and Shane DiBona was fantastic.
“I thought [Morris] really handled it well,” Ferentz said. “And the team responded to him.”
When Iowa switched to a 3-4 defense at points--a rarity for this team--the players didn't miss a beat. They stopped the short passes the MSU had been living off of, shutting down the short passing game. Suddenly, a unit full of question marks was full of answers.
Even the Iowa special teams made a big statement.
The special teams, which is traditionally a strong point for the Hawkeyes, has been awful this season. The Hawkeyes had a punt blocked and gave up a kick return for a touchdown against Arizona and gave up a fake punt and missed a field goal and extra point against Wisconsin.
But tonight--save for a missed extra point--they were phenomenal. Punter Ryan Donahue was exceptional, as always, and the kickoff coverage was a brick wall. Michael Meyer even drilled a 37-yard field goal.
And while there is still plenty of room to improve, the Iowa special teams may at last not be the team's achilles heel. Missed extra point or not, this unit came a long way in one week.
For all the statements made by the Iowa players, perhaps the biggest came from its coach.
Coach Kirk Ferentz was blasted for his clock mismanagement at the end of the Wisconsin game and for his ultra-conservative game plans. But this afternoon, Ferentz was aggressive.
With time running down in the first half, he called two timeouts in hope of getting the ball back from Michigan State. That's not a typical Ferentz move. Scoring before half wasn't the point--Iowa had a very slim chance of scoring again. But the move proved that Ferentz could be aggressive.
The second half definitely featured plenty of clock-controlling runs, but Iowa came out throwing, something it rarely does with a 30-point lead. And after another touchdown, Ferentz still went for more, calling a pass from wide receiver Marvin McNutt to Derrell Johnson-Koulianos.
He didn't convert, but again it didn't matter. McNutt--well, Ferentz--received a standing ovation for the call.
Ferentz isn't going to change his conservative strategy, and why should he? After all, it's the strategy that Iowa fans have embraced for the last 12 years.
But Ferentz sent a message that he's a competitor. That he can be aggressive. That he's as gutsy as any other coach in the country.
Michigan State was supposed to be the team making a statement this weekend. It was supposed to prove itself as a legitimate national title contender.
Instead, Iowa did the talking. The Hawkeyes finally played like the team they were supposed to be. As Ferentz said, they played a "complete game," playing dominant on defense, efficient on offense, and solid on special teams.
And as the fans stormed the field and the players celebrated with each other, Iowa sent a message to the country, a message that says the Hawkeyes are very much alive in the race for Pasadena.
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