EAST LANSING, Mich. — Some consider football an art form, but it sure isn’t pretty.
The game is spit and blood, stingers and broken bones. When it rains, the game goes on. When it rains harder, you suck it up and keep playing or risk getting your face shoved in the mud.
Iowa’s football team wasn’t pretty Saturday in Spartan Stadium. It wasn’t in the same time zone as pretty.
It rained. At times, it was a downpour. On top of that, the Hawkeyes faced the Big Ten’s top defense in Michigan State. It would be kind to call Iowa’s offensive performance a grind.
At one point, Iowa had five first-downs and seven punts. At one point in the fourth quarter, Hawkeye quarterback James Vandenberg was averaging a horrid 3.3 yards per pass attempt.
Whether it was his footwork, inaccuracy or inability to spot open receivers, Vandenberg often looked little like a quarterback who could lead his offense to anything but criticism.
But when it was over, Vandenberg had thrown the fourth-quarter bomb that mattered, had led the fourth-quarter drive that mattered.
“We just kept battling,” said Iowa running back Mark Weisman. “If you keep battling, good things will happen to you usually. You’ve got to keep fighting.”
Iowa didn’t lead this game at any time through four quarters. But when it was over in double-overtime, it had the only lead that mattered.
Ugly weather, ugly football, and a 19-16 Big Ten victory that left Iowa’s players and coaches grinning and shouting.
“One thing I love about this team,” Hawkeye wide receiver Keenan Davis said, “we never give up.”
Down 13-6 with 5:47 left and 68 yards to go for a touchdown, Iowa looked as far from a tie score as the Iowa River is from Lake Michigan.
On 2nd-and-26 at the Iowa 17, Iowa’s passing game took a wild-and-crazy turn and actually threw a vertical pass. Vandenberg-to-Davis.
A beautiful pass, a perfectly run “up” route by Davis, a 35-yard catch.
On 3rd-and-6 at the Michigan 45, Weisman got loose.
Weisman was beyond terrific in his previous three games, but this wasn’t Central Michigan or Minnesota he was running against Saturday. Michigan State, as always, has future NFL defenders.
On 13 different carries, Weisman was contained to two yards or less. But then, he bounced free for a 37-yard rumble down the sideline to the MSU 8.
Three players later, Weisman ran five yards for a touchdown with :55 left.
Junior Mike Meyer kicked the game-tying extra point. And kicked a field goal in the first overtime. And kicked a 42-yard field goal in the second overtime, in the rain, after receiver Jordan Cotton saved Iowa’s bacon by knocking a potential interception away from Spartan corner Darqueze Dennard.
Meyer has been sensational this season. In six games, he has 14 field goals in 15 tries. Without him being that good, Iowa loses to Northern Illinois, it loses here, and it’s 2-4.
“He’s been a completely different player, I think, this year,” Vandenberg said. “The strides we’ve seen him take this year and coming into this year have been exponential.”
Added Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz: “He’s been good the prior two years, so we don’t take it for granted, but boy, his execution was flawless.”
Meyer said a piece of advice he got from a former Hawkeye kicker rides with him on every field goal try.
“Nate Kaeding told me to treat every kick like it’s a Super Bowl-winning kick,” Meyer said.
After Saturday’s game, Kaeding happily described his friend Meyer’s merits.
“Unflappable, composed, steely, even-keeled,” Kaeding said. “Nothing seems to bother him. Never too high or too low.”
Which is Iowa’s mantra, or one of them. How else you could lose at home to lowly Central Michigan, then win at Michigan State and sit 2-0 in the Big Ten three weeks later?
It doesn’t make any sense, yet it’s totally logical. If, that is, you keep plugging away.
“What we’ve tried to do is work on and focus on what’s right in front of us and getting better,” Ferentz said.
“That’s what this game is all about and that’s what it teaches you. So you’ve got to have some mental toughness to do that because every day’s not going to go the way you want, certainly not every play is going to go the way you want.
“And today was a great illustration of that.”
With the Hawkeyes leading 19-16 and needing a defensive stop in the second overtime, Iowa cornerback Greg Castillo saw an Andrew Maxwell pass sail and deflect off Spartan receiver Keith Mumphery’s fingertips.
The carom came directly to Castillo. He clutched it, and seemed frozen for a moment, as if he were trying to come to terms with the fact his team had just won.
“It took a little bit to process,” Castillo said.
The victory took a lot to process, but a victory it is. It wasn’t art, it wasn’t pretty. It was spit and blood. And heart.