Iowa-Michigan State: A Series Named Desire

By ClassyHawkeye on November 6, 2020 at 2:30 pm
go hawks go
© Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Since 2000
  Iowa MSU
Overall record 161-94 153-102
h2h Wins 7 7
big ten titles 2 3
bTcg appearances 1 3
10+ win seasons 6 6


The Iowa-Michigan State series is one of the more hotly-contested matchups in the Big Ten with the Hawkeyes owning the overall series lead with a razor-thin 23-22-2 advantage. Since 2000, the teams have split 14 matchups (7-7), underscoring just how even these programs have been in recent years.


Or have they?

A closer look at the series tells a different story. From a Hawkeye perspective, reliving last 20 years takes the shape of a three-act play, with a happy beginning, a melancholic middle, and a potentially very painful ending.

And when talking drama, who better to look to for wisdom than famous Iowa alum and legendary American playwright, Tennessee Williams:

“There is a time for departure even when there's no certain place to go.”

—from Camino Real

Act I 2000-2009: The Pass Menagerie

The aughts were good to Iowa in this series and as a whole. Kirk Ferentz had the Hawkeyes back in bowl games by 2001, won a co-Big Ten title in 2002, and another in 2004. In 2009 the Hawkeyes won 11 games and the Orange Bowl (arguably Ferentz’s biggest win to date). Iowa finished with four 10+ win seasons (2002, 2003, 2004 & 2009) and as the calendar turned to 2010 the program seemed poised to take the next step.

Conversely, for the first seven seasons of the decade Michigan State languished through a pair of hilariously embarrassing coaches: first Bobby Williams, then John L. Smith, whose claim to fame was screaming and slapping himself all over East Lansing:

From 2000-2006, the Spartans went 38-45 overall with only a pair of bowl trips. Michigan State eventually got their act together and hired Mark Dantonio to right the ship, but by the end of the decade, Iowa had gone 5-3 against the Spartans including a pair of wins over Dantonio’s 2007 and 2009 squads. The latter affair was capped off by one of the most famous plays in school history, "7 got 6."

Act II 2010-2019: 27 Seconds Full of Cotton

When Mark Dantonio was hired in 2007, he wanted to model his Spartans program after Iowa. Little did he know, in only six seasons he'd do much more than that. 

The Hawkeyes' 37-6 shellacking of #5 Michigan State in 2010 was a lot of fun, but in reality it was a blip on what ended up as arguably the most disappointing season in school history. Iowa started the year ranked ninth in the country and stumbled to a very typical 8-5 finish (but hey, Insight Bowl Champs ya'll!). The Spartans, meanwhile, recovered from the loss to finish 11-2 and capture a share of the Big Ten Championship. For Michigan State it was a breakthrough season and launching-pad for the greatest decade in program history. For Iowa, it was very, very Iowa.

In 2011, Michigan State returned to Iowa City and pushed the Hawkeyes around in a 37-21 win en route to another 11-win season and a trip to the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game (a 42-39 loss to Wisconsin). The 2011 Hawkeyes were never really that good, laboring to a 7-6 finish in a season most-memorable for this:

The 2012 affair in East Lansing was a rainy mess, but somehow Iowa was able to grind out Kirk Ferentz's 100th career victory in a 19-16 2OT win over what would be a 7-6 Spartans team. Iowa improved to 4-2 on the year and didn't win another game the rest of the way (finishing 4-8).

Over the next two seasons, Dantonio took Michigan State to another level with a win in Iowa City en route to a 12-1, Big Ten and Rose Bowl Championship season in 2013, followed by an 11-2 Cotton Bowl Championship season in 2014. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes answered 2012's disaster with a resurgent 8-5 campaign in 2013 before erasing any momentum with 2014's tumultuous "that's football" season.

And then there's Maude.

2015's magical 12-2 season rejuvenated Iowa football. In August, Ferentz seemingly had one foot out the door but by January of 2016 he had a fat, new contract extension. For Michigan State, posting another 10+ win season in 2015 seemed almost rudimentary and at 11-1, the Spartans met the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten Championship Game.

As for that game nothing more really needs to be said. No Iowa fan deserves to re-live that game for any moment, so let's just paint a quick picture of that night and move on:

  • Biggest game in school history
  • 22 plays, 87 yards in 9:04
  • 27 seconds away from a Big Ten title, the CFP and 13-0
  • Me, in the fetal position in the aisle behind the end zone at Lucas Oil Stadium

The Spartans went on to the College Football Playoff at the Cotton Bowl while Iowa went to a consolation-y Rose Bowl. 

Iowa and Michigan State have met once since that cold, dark night in Central Indiana—2017's rather forgettable (outside of a fake punt reception by A.J. Epenesa) 17-10 Spartans victory in East Lansing.

Year Iowa Michigan State
2010 8-5 (4-4) 11-2 (7-1)
2011 7-6 (4-4) 11-3 (7-1)
2012 4-8 (2-6) 7-6 (3-5)
2013 8-5 (5-3) 13-1 (8-0)
2014 7-6 (4-4) 11-2 (7-1)
2015 12-2 (8-0) 12-2 (7-1)
2016 8-5 (6-3) 3-9 (1-8)
2017 8-5 (4-5) 10-3 (7-2)
2018 9-4 (5-4) 7-6 (5-4)
2019 10-3 (6-3) 7-6 (4-5)

Michigan State finished that season 10-3 (their 6th season with at least 10 wins since 2010) while Iowa went a familiar 8-5 in an otherwise forgettable three-year stretch (2016-2018) for both programs. The Hawkeyes ended the decade with a 10-3 campaign and by 2020, Michigan State's run of greatness had come to an end.

Still, from 2010-2019 the Spartans went 4-2 against Iowa, posted six 10+ win seasons, won three Big Ten Titles (2010, 2013, 2015), a Rose Bowl, a Cotton Bowl and made a trip to the CFP. The Hawkeyes finished the 2010s with seven seasons of eight wins or fewer and a whole lot of thoughts of what could have been.

"For time is the longest distance between two places."

—Tennessee Williams

Act III 2020-Beyond: Hawks on a Hot Tin Roof

The Dantonio era reached its nadir on and off the field (sounds kinda foreshadowing) after the 2019 season and he stepped away in March of 2020. Since the extinction of the Y2K bug, Michigan State is now on its fourth different head coach. They've also traveled from post-Nick Saban conference doormat to nationally-relevant Big Ten champion and back again while the Hawkeyes have had one head coach, one philosophy, several missed opportunities, and a whole lot of 8-4 seasons. 

Michigan State (1-1) rides into Kinnick Stadium Saturday fresh off a stunning victory at Michigan while Iowa (0-2) is teetering on the edge of the abyss. If the last 20 years are any indication, it feels like even with a Hawkeyes victory, this week's game could be the start of something special in East Lansing and more of just the same in Iowa City. An Iowa loss and it could be curtains at Kinnick.

“There comes a time when you look into the mirror and you realize that what you see is all that you will ever be. And then you accept it. Or you kill yourself. Or you stop looking in mirrors.”

—Tennessee Williams

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