IOWA CITY — Iowa called for a punt return on the first play of the fourth quarter. Michigan State called for a fake punt.
Perfect storm. Bull’s-eye. Winner, winner, chicken dinner. All that stuff.
Iowa called for a return. Michigan State faced a fourth-and-7 from its 37 as the fourth quarter started with the Spartans holding a six-point lead. Iowa’s punt return team pretty much turned its back on punter Mike Sadler.
And there’s your fatal flaw.
“Special teams can turn the course of a game and really decide momentum,” free safety Tanner Miller said. “Those are things was have to eliminate.
Sadler sprinted 25 yards for a first down at Iowa’s 38. The drive stalled, but freshman Michael Geiger hit a 49-yard field goal to put the Spartans up by two scores. That was more than enough breathing room.
Running back Damon Bullock had his helmet on. He was ready to go out on the field and start the comeback. But, no.
“That was a dagger to us,” Bullock said.
Since the 2010 season, Iowa has had six fake punts work against it. You remember the Wisconsin game, a 31-30 loss that turned on a 17-yard gain on a fake punt. This was the second time Iowa was fooled this season. Northern Illinois also converted a fake punt into a field goal in the opener. Let’s save the tracking of the onside kicks for another day. That’s a homework assignment.
Iowa’s outside defenders turned into blockers on the snap. They turned and ran with Michigan State players. The only two Hawkeyes who had eyes in the backfield were linebacker Quinton Alston and fullback Macon Plewa. They faced three Michigan State blockers, plus Alston was chipped.
“In theory, you have it defended,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, “but if you’ve got guys turning and blocking, setting up a return, you’re vulnerable. Maybe that’s the moral of the story, maybe we can’t [call the return]. We were pretty good two weeks ago, we paid for it today.”
That was another notch in the degree of difficulty. Wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley left the game with a leg injury in the first half. He’s the punt returner, the one who was national special teams player of the week with two returns for TDs against Western Michigan on Sept. 21. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Riley McCarron was back in place of Martin-Manley.
“I feel like it’s hard to come back from when a team gets a fake punt or a fake field goal against you,” defensive tackle Carl Davis said. “They get the momentum. The defense has been out there. You did the hard work and then it goes out, but no matter what happens, we [the defense] have to put the fire out.”
Even the fires started by your special teams.