IOWA CITY, Iowa - A week after engineering one of the best late-game drives in recent Michigan State football history, Kirk Cousins took responsibility for committing two big errors which derailed the Spartans' hopes of going 9-0 and remaining in the National Championship chase.
Cousins threw two interceptions on Michigan State's second and third possessions of the game.
"They were completely on me," Cousins said. "I was trying to do too much. That is something that the Iowa defense is very good at. They get you impatient and make you try to get greedy and take too much and that's what I was trying to do."
The first one was returned 66 yards for a touchdown. After the first pick, the Spartans had had the ball only twice, but were already down 17-0.
Michigan State trailed 10-0 at the time of Cousins' first interception. The Spartans had driven to the Iowa 41-yard line, thanks to first downs by Bennie Fowler on an end around for 11 yards, a 13-yard pass to [/db]Mark Dell[/db] on a slant, and a quick-game 9-yard slant to Fowler on third-and-six.
The Spartans seemed to have something going on their second drive, with a fresh first-and-10 at the 41.
But Cousins forced a pass from the right hash to the far side of the field against an Iowa defense known for years for its terrific positioning and reaction in zone defense. This one was thrown to the single-receiver side, into the vicinity of two defensive backs.
The pass was intended for B.J. Cunningham, working against field corner [/db]Micah Hyde[/db] on an out route against quarters (cover four) zone coverage.
Cousins tried to laser the ball to Cunningham, although safety Tyler Sash - with no other receiver in the area to worry about - was able to read the throw all the way, make a jump on it from inside-out, and undercut it for an interception.
"The first one, the cover-four safety got underneath the route like he is supposed to do," Cousins said. "Instead of flipping back side to my second or third option, I just hung with my first option. I felt like if I made a good throw I could stick in in there. And you can't stick it in there, you have to come back to your second and third option, which I didn't do."
Sash lateraled the ball to Hyde, who raced to the corner of the end zone for a TD and the 17-0 lead late in the first quarter.
Cousins finished the day with decent numbers, completing 21 of 29 passes for 198 yards, mostly on short slants against off zone coverage. But three of the rare instances in which he tried to throw downfield, he was picked off.
"If you look beyond those three interceptions - which is silly to say because that's what dictated the game - I don't think I was impatient," Cousins said. "But on those three plays, absolutely, I was trying to do too much. And Iowa's defense is a bend but don't break defense and you are only getting a few yards at a time and when you get a chance to try to chuck it deep, you always want to try to force it in there and they got the better of me on that
Iowa Wrinkle Bothered MSU Passing Game
Iowa surprised Michigan State by dropping eight into coverage and rushing only three when the Spartans had an extra receiver in the game, especially on third down. This seemed to upset Cousins' comfort level and possibly lead to the second interception.
Background: A week ago, Iowa's linebackers had tremendous problems covering Wisconsin's receivers in the slot area, and over the middle.
Michigan State game-planned to stress those matchups against an Iowa defense that is built to keep three linebackers on the field, even against multi-receiver personnel groups in passing situations, when many other programs would go with a nickel defense.
Michigan State opened the game in an empty formation, with three WRs, a TE and a RB all split out wide. Mark Dell dropped a pass on an accurate slant on that play, setting a bad open for the day. MSU was stopped on third-and-one, two plays later, going three-and-out on its opening possession, when already trailing 7-0.
"Iowa played a great game, and you can't expect to win a game when you throw interceptions and drop passes," Dell said. "I had a dropped ball out there, and you can't have those mistakes. We just have to go out on Sunday and begin working to correct the mistakes that we made and move forward."
After the pick-six, MSU drove to the Iowa 37-yard line. Four times, up to that point, Iowa showed the eight-man coverage against the multi-receiver look. Michigan State completed short passes for 8, 5, 7 and 7 yards on those throws, but it was clear that there would be more congestion in the slot area and at the linebacker level, and the yards after catch that the Badgers enjoyed a week ago would be eliminated.
"We definitely didn't expect that coming in," Dell said of Iowa's eight-man coverages, especially on third down. "It was a good change to their game plan. That was great on their part. They saw the game that our receivers had last week and they made adjustments to do that and you have to take your hat off to the coaching staff that they prepared themselves for that.
"That was one of the adjustments that we had to make, coming into halftime, was that they were dropping back and they had an extra safety to clog things up. That's what the second half is for. You go in and make corrections and you adjust to that those things that they are throwing at you."
Problem was, Michigan State was already down 30-0.
Cousins' second interception led to the Hawkeyes' third TD and a 23-0 lead. The interception came on third-and-7, at the Iowa 37, against the eight-man drop.
On that play, Cousins read a shorter receiver, but turned it down, possibly due to the extra congestion in the middle and the poor likelihood of yards after the catch.
"I had a good option to my primary receiver there and decided to pass up on it, didn't feel good about it," Cousins said. "After coming to the sideline, my quarterback coach told me that I probably should have taken that."
Instead, he forced a throw from the left hash to the right sideline, again throwing across the field and putting the ball in the air for a long period of time against a savvy, well-coached pass defense.
"I saw a lot of space to the field and thought that my receiver, with all that space, if I just put it out there he would be able to come back for it," Cousins said. "Again, that wasn't the case. That was my fault.
"And I threw off my back foot, which I said at the beginning of the year that I can't do. To be successful, I need to trust my protection and throw off my front foot and shift my weight, and I didn't do it on that play and the result was not what we want."
An incompletion would have given the Spartan kicking game a chance to attempt a 44-yard field goal in good conditions and possibly cut the lead to 17-3. Instead, Iowa returned the interception 42 yards to the MSU 43-yard line.
Three plays later, Iowa connected on a 32-yard wheel route pass - MSU's weakness a year ago - to the tailback, against Greg Jones, making it 23-0.
In addition to Iowa's successful defensive wrinkle in the passing game, Cousins' was probably also affected by the Spartans' inability to run the ball. As was the case against Northwestern and Illinois, he probably, and perhaps rightly, put added pressure on himself to try to carry the offense through the air.
Michigan State rushed for only 31 yards on 20 carries. Eleven of those yards came via Fowler on the end around.
Edwin Baker was held to 21 yards on nine carries (2.3 per attempt). Le'Veon Bell rushed for 12 yards on six carries (2.0 per), and Larry Caper had one carry for no yards.
"I think we've run into some very good defenses," Cousins said. "I would say Iowa's defensive line is the best in the country and I knew we were going to have to throw the ball effectively and at times we did and at times we definitely did not.
"In our Michigan game, our offense got going because of those big runs we had early. So if you can bust a run early, like we had against Michigan, that definitely helps. But whether we're running the ball well or not we still have to be able to deliver and I can't turn the ball over. That's something, whether we're running the ball well or not, I still have to be very mindful of."
Cousins had avoided major mistakes ever since the first half of the Wisconsin game, serving as MSU's top primary weapon in the Spartans' surprising 8-0 start and No. 5-ranking in the Bowl Championship Series standings.
Last week against Northwestern, Cousins completed a comeback from a 17-point deficit by driving the Spartans 98 yards in the closing minutes for the go-ahead touchdown, delivering the ball with expert form against a strong wind.
But this week, he was too aggressive on the two major first-half mistakes.
"That's something that I'm going to go back and work on, to make better decisions," Cousins said. "And that's what quarterback is, making good decisions, so I'll be sure I'm doing that this week in practice and next Saturday during the game."
Cousins echoed the beliefs of his head coach Mark Dantonio, that the Spartans would rebound from this disappointment.
"I have a better feeling in the locker room after a loss like this than some of our losses last year," Cousins said. "I feel like obviously we still have a lot to play for.
"If you look at Iowa, we ran into a buzz saw today where they come off a loss and you could tell they just said, 'We're not going to lose today. We're not going to lose at home. We are not going to lose two in a row. Our seniors just are not going to let that happen.' That's the mindset that we need to have now. We lost one that we got handed to us, and coming back home now with three games to go, we have to have the same type of attitude where it's not going to happen.
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