EAST LANSING, Mich. — When Iowa and Michigan State get together, it’s as grunty as Big Ten football gets and there’s usually a body count.
Iowa running back Mark Weisman might be part of that count. The sophomore broke through the Spartans for a 5-yard TD that tied the game with 55 seconds left in regulation. The Hawkeyes won it, 19-16, in double overtime, but Weisman didn’t finish the game.
Weisman, who rushed for 116 yards on 26 carries, took a helmet on his lower right leg at the end of the play. He didn’t play the rest of the game and showed up for postgame interviews in a walking boot.
“The ankle is fine, it’ll be alright,” Weisman said. “I don’t know if I could play on it right now, but I think it’ll be perfectly fine.”
The Hawkeyes (4-2, 2-0 Big Ten) will go into Saturday’s game with Penn State (4-2, 2-0) with — yes, you’ve heard this one or two times before — questions at running back.
Sophomore Damon Bullock didn’t make the trip to Michigan State (4-3, 1-2) after suffering after affects from a concussion he suffered Sept. 15 against Northern Iowa. Bullock has now missed 3 1/2 games.
True freshman Greg Garmon carried four times for 6 yards in the overtimes. Sophomore Jordan Canzeri made the trip to East Lansing, but didn’t play. He’s coming back from a torn ACL suffered in late March. True freshman Michael Malloy also made the trip but didn’t play.
The Hawkeyes are, once again, walking a tightrope at running back.
“They said it’s a bump right now and we’ll know more tomorrow,” Ferentz said of Weisman’s injury. “He couldn’t push off [that leg].”
Defensive end Joe Gaglione and cornerback Micah Hyde left the game, but returned and finished it. Still, this will be a week of ibuprofen for the Hawkeyes heading into another week of grunty ball against the Nittany Lions.
“I’m already feeling it,” said linebacker James Morris, whose right hand was too swollen for a handshake after the game. “This is probably the most sore I’ve ever been in my life after a game. It’s really just about us trying to get better every day. This feeling doesn’t mean anything if we sit on our butts.”
With running back health sketchy as ever, the focus for the Hawkeyes swings back to the passing game, which made one play of importance against Michigan State.
One a second-and-26 from Iowa’s 16, quarterback James Vandenberg hit wide receiver Keenan Davis for a 35-yard gain to keep alive the Hawkeyes’ game-tying drive. Other than that, it was another messy day in what’s quickly becoming a messy season for Vandenberg and the receivers.
Vandenberg finished 19 of 36 for 134 yards and an interception, which led to MSU’s only TD. That’s a pass efficiency of 78.5 with a 3.7 yards per attempt, the lowest for Vandenberg since his first extended appearance as a redshirt freshman in 2009 when Ricky Stanzi was hurt against Northwestern.
“It started out ugly and it ended ugly, but we kept pushing along and we finally got some things break,” Vandenberg said.
And it did, just in time. Ferentz called the 35-yarder to Davis, who had six catches for 65 yards (his third straight game with six receptions), the play of the game. Punts were OK, he said. Safe football was the plan, they said. And hey, it worked.
“We were going to play safe football,” Vandenberg said. “We were going to run the ball. We were going to stay out of third-and-longs, and if we were in third-and-longs, we weren’t going to force the ball. We knew ball security and field position was big and we just kept sawing wood.”
This big question going into Michigan State was if Weisman could do his thing against a bona fide Big Ten defense. He was the epitome of “sawing wood.” Weisman had the 37-yarder and a 31-yard run in the third quarter. His other 24 carries went for 48 yards.
That is sawing wood. That is going to take a physical toll.
“If anybody saw the game and you take those two plays out, how did Weisman get 100 yards?” Ferentz said. “That’s football, too. That’s sticking with it, and Mark’s a tough competitor.”
This is the path Ferentz has chosen for the Hawkeyes. They will grind and they don’t really care if you like it or not. They’re not into style points, but they are into blocking, tackling and, if they still have one left after Saturday, strong, silent types at running back.
“What we try to do if focus on what’s in front of us and getting better,” Ferentz said. “That’s what football is all about. That’s what it teaches you.
“You need some mental toughness to do that, because not everyday is going to go the way you want, certainly every play isn’t going to go the way you want. Today was a great illustration of that. We had some tough circumstances, but the guys hung in there and kept working.”
In other words, Ferentz’s 100th win as Iowa’s coach couldn’t have been anymore symbolic of Iowa football during his 13-plus seasons as coach.
“Regardless of whether this was the 100th or the 10th, I’ll remember this game for awhile, just because of the way the guys battled and stuck with it,” Ferentz said.