EAST LANSING, MICH. –
The road to Atlanta for Iowa’s football team was all peaches and cream for one half Saturday at Spartan Stadium. But, Michigan State, with deposed coach Frank “Muddy Waters” as inspiration, did its best to make the final harrowing 30 minutes the pits.
The Hawkeyes, roaring away to a 24-3 halftime lead behind three touchdowns by Owen Gill, held off a gallant Spartan rally in the final 7 1/2 minutes before escaping to the Peach Bowl with a 24-18 victory.
The triumph gave Iowa a 7-4 record and a berth in its first postseason game other than the Rose Bowl. The Hawkeyes concluded the Big Ten season in third place at 6-2. Michigan State retired 2-9 and 2-7.
For Iowa Coach Hayden Fry the New Year’s Eve bowl will be the fifth postseason game he has coached. His record is 1-3 following last year’s 28-0 Rose Bowl loss to Washington.
Peach Bowl team selection chairman Art Gregory, fidgeting in his seat in the press box, beamed and gave a sigh of relief when the verdict was in. He formally invited Fry and the Hawkeyes to the bowl in a ceremony repeated for reporters outside the Iowa locker room.
Fry quickly replied, “I don’t even have to think about it — we accept with honor… This is a great accomplishment for University of Iowa football. To win seven games after a rough start is wonderful and a tribute to our young players.”
While Fry was paying tribute, Spartan fans rendered homage to Waters, carrying the 59-year-old coach off the field to the chant of “Muddy, Muddy, Muddy.” The Spartan players saluted their coach by thrusting fingers in the traditional “No. 1″ sign into the air.
Upon hearing Tennessee (which defeated Kentucky, 28-7) would likely be Iowa’s Peach Bowl opponent and that the Volunteers were ahead at the time, Fry commented: “You better call Tennessee and warn them, after all we had a 24-3 lead.”
“They (Michigan State) whipped us all over the field the second half… They won the game in the second half.”
Fry was asked what he said to Waters following the game: “Nothing you could print… we were getting beat in every category.”
Fry called Waters “a wonderful, wonderful man. I thought his players paid him a great tribute by playing the way they did the second half. I was as worried as you could be the second half, everything in the books went wrong.”
The first half, Iowa played like it was bowl caliber. The Hawkeyes scored in four of its first five possessions. The 212-pound Gill, who has come of age at running back, carried 29 times to finish with 102 of his team’s 173 rushing yards. It was the burly sophomore’s second straight 100-yard performance. Gill’s three TD’s on runs of 10, 5 and 11 yards not only was the top individual effort for an Iowa running back this season but also was the most scores allowed by Michigan State on the ground in a single game this season.
Iowa began its march to Atlanta with a 43-yard field goal by Tom Nichol with 7:19 to go in the first quarter. Michigan State senior quarterback John Leister, meanwhile, started in place of freshman David Yarema and was intercepted by Bobby Stoops on the Spartans’ second series. The Hawkeyes, behind Gill and the passing combination of Chuck Long to Dave Moritz, marched 32 yards in seven plays with Gill crashing over the goal from 10 yards out with 2:21 left.
Iowa’s defense, with a pass rush led by Tony Wancket, Mark Bortz and Straun Joseph, gave the Spartans fits. Michigan State totaled only two net yards rushing the entire afternoon.
Iowa cashed in on its next possession with Long engineering a 70-yard scoring drive in 10 plays. Ronnie Harmon made a circus catch of a 29-yard pass from Long to the seven-yard line and gill scored two plays later from five yards out to make it 17-0 with 11:49 remaining in the first half.
The Spartans got on the scoreboard with a 39-yard field goal by Ralf Mojsiejenko with 6:37 to play. The 14-play drive stalled at the 21-yard line in one of the most unusual and entertaining sights to come to college football in many years.
Iowa free safety Ron Hawley was defending a Yarema pass to split end Darryl Turner when he crashed into the wooden goal posts. The post immediately snapped and crashed to the AstroTurf. Hawley was unhurt and laughed while receiving a “high five” handshake from Turner. A grounds crew of four had to hold the crossbar in place while Mojsiejenko booted his field goal.
“You usually get wiped out after hitting a goal post,” said Hawley, who also was credited with an interception. “I think it was weak before my shoulder hit it.”
Iowa added insurance to its lead and mounted a 24-3 halftime margin with Gill’s 11-yard scoring run with 1:04 left in the first half. Gill capped a seven-play march with an off tackle burst helped by a key block by Norm Granger.
Iowa’s 24-3 lead, which stood until 7:27 was left to play, was in jeopardy following a 49-yard interception return by Spartan defensive end Joe Stevens. He picked off a Chuck Long pass and was dragged down by Gill one yard shy of the goal line. Tony Ellis leaped the final yard to trim the lead to 24-10.
Iowa’s Paul McCarty then fumbled the next series and Michigan State had new life. Quarterback Yarema fired a pass to Otis Grant with Ron Hawley intercepting. But Iowa’s Devon Mitchell was charged with pass interference at the two-yard line and Ellis again ran one yard to score. Rich Schario’s conversion run off a fake kick made it 24-18 with 1:23 left to play.
Iowa’s J.C. Love-Jordan recovered the ensuing onside kick and the Hawkeyes hung on.
Sophomore quarterback Long finished the regular season by moving into third place on the all-time Hawkeye passing department. His 1,374 yards moved him behind former Iowa greats Gary Snook and Larry Lawrence. In addition, Long’s 130 passes in 201 attempts gives him a pass completion mark of .646 also tops in the Iowa record books.