IOWA CITY, Iowa -- There's no question that Michigan State's defense is among the best in the nation.
If the Spartans throw the ball and play special teams like they did against Iowa, they'll be a serious contender in the Big Ten this season.
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Connor Cook threw for a career-high 277 yards and two touchdowns and Michigan State opened conference play with a 26-14 win over the Hawkeyes on Saturday.
Darqueze Dennard had a pair of interceptions and freshman Michael Geiger had four field goals for the Spartans (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten), who held the Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-1) scoreless in the second half.
"We were tough to run the ball against, may be an understatement. We came up with two big turnovers at the right times," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
Mark Weisman ran for just nine yards on seven carries for the Hawkeyes. They finished with just 23 yards rushing -- or two less than Michigan State punter Mike Sadler had on one fake -- and lost for the first time since its season opener.
Iowa, which averaged over 50 rushes a game entering play, was forced to throw the ball 46 times against the Spartans.
"To try to move the ball effectively on them, you've got to be mixed and balanced. It was tough sledding out here," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We were hoping we could run it effectively. But the way they're built, they make it very difficult to do that."
Geiger and Sadler teamed up to headline a huge day for Michigan State's special teams.
Up 6 early in the fourth quarter, Sadler took off on a run that nullified a big stand for Iowa's defense. The successful fake set up a 49-yard field goal by Geiger that put the Spartans up 23-14 with 13:28 left, which proved to be insurmountable against the Spartans.
"It's all about timing and execution. We just felt like we had the time and that it was the right moment to do it. I just wanted our players to know that they're aggressive on the football field and sometimes coaches need to take a risk too," Dantonio said.
Jake Rudock threw for 241 yards and two touchdowns for the Hawkeyes. But Dennard picked him off twice, including an interception with 5:09 left that largely ended the suspense.
Michigan State hasn't allowed more than 17 points in five games this season.
"When you have a defense that can hold a powerful offense like Iowa to under 30 yards rushing, that's incredible," Cook said. "We go into every single football game and think, we score three touchdowns and we're going to win. We didn't score three touchdowns but we had a lot of field goals."
Michigan State's stellar second half made it easy to forget how much momentum Iowa had at halftime.
The Hawkeyes found some life in their passing game and quickly turned that 10-point deficit into a 14-10 lead at the break.
Rudock completed his last 11 passes of the first half for 138 yards and two touchdowns -- by far the best stretch of his young career.
Rudock beat a Michigan State blitz by finding Damon Bullock in the flat for a 47-yard touchdown, and he hit C.J. Fiedorowicz for a 10-yard touchdown pass with 1:10 left in the second quarter.
That would be it for the Hawkeyes. They played most of the game without leading receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley, who went out with a leg injury that Ferentz said shouldn't be a lingering one.
"They've got the momentum; we've got to get it back," Dantonio said. "The defense helped out. They usually do."
Cook -- who had hooked up with Macgarrett Kings on a 46-yard TD pass in the second quarter -- opened the second half with a long touchdown pass to Fowler that gave Michigan State a 17-14 lead.
The Spartans made it 20-14 on a 35-yarder by Geiger, who also connected from 27, 40 and 49 yards.
"We gave up some play, and that's going to happen at times. But to their credit, they did a good job throwing and catching," Ferentz said.