The perfect storm: Hawkeyes vs. Spartans

From Chuck Long’s naked bootleg that first spoiled my innocence to the Marvin McNutt miracle quick slant as time expired, the Iowa Hawkeyes have always been a haunting shadow in my life as a football fan.

There was the 12-7 upset in 1990. The 17-point lead, blown in ’96. The inexplicable 21-16 setback of ’00. The double-overtime backbreaker in ’07. The rain-soaked stinker of ’12.

I was actually born in Fort Dodge, but moved to Battle Creek, Mich. as a toddler and spent the next eight years – formative times for a young boy’s heart – a short drive away from Michigan State University’s campus. Before I ever saw Kinnick Stadium or Carver-Hawkeye Arena, I’d made a second home at Spartan Stadium and Jenison Field House, donned in green and white.

By the time we came back to Iowa in 1988, I was a lost cause: an MSU die-hard wandering through these fields of dreams. I went to plenty of Iowa and Iowa State games with friends through my teenage years. I chose to stay here for school, and even married a Hawkeye. Despite constant exposure to the contrary, I still – and forever – bleed green.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or the law of averages that comes from being a member of the same conference. Whatever the explanation, the Hawks and Spartans always seem to produce tense, overly-dramatic football games – which, of course, only adds to the intrigue of this story.

Since 1982, Iowa has played Michigan State 26 times. SEVENTEEN games have been decided by a touchdown or less. The Hawkeyes have only lost five of those matchups.

I really don’t feel like dredging up old memories, which still burn like open wounds as I simply skim the yearly scores. I witnessed a lot of these breathtaking endings in person, and saw all of the others on television. They’re mostly too painful – and even illogical – to describe now.

The saving grace in the past, relatively speaking, always seemed to the lack of general relevance. Iowa and Michigan State rarely played when both programs were peaking; sometimes the Hawks were really good and the Spartans weren’t, and vice versa. Sometimes, the matchup was only important because they were both fighting for their bowl lives.

Then along came 2015.

Through a lot of hard work and a heavy dose of fate, the 12-0 Hawks and 11-1 Spartans will play in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title. Not only are both programs currently ranked in the Top-5, but a berth in the national semifinals is at stake.

The biggest game in Iowa football history to date? Quite possibly. The biggest game in MSU football history to date? Quite possibly.

The winner will be in the playoff spotlight for weeks to come. The loser has its championship dreams shattered.

No pressure.

I’m reminding myself constantly to keep things in perspective. It’s just a game. I’m just a fan. My personal life won’t change or even slightly budge one iota by the end result.

Still, I’m on edge. Have been since last week. In so many ways, this series – with all of its dizzying twists and turns – all comes down to Saturday night.

My wife and kids will be decked out in black and gold. The texts and calls and trash talk among friends and family members will flow freely. And after a few tense hours, it will all be over and we simply move on. Right?

I better get the couch ready, just in case.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net