The off-season is a long and tiresome trudge, so how can we best get through it? By looking ahead to next year, of course. So, in the spirit of forward thinking, we present a team-by-team look at Iowa's 2010 football opponents (with looks at Illinois and Purdue thrown in for good measure so our Big Televen brethren don't feel ignored). Next up: SPARTY NOOOO!
In case you missed it... PART ONE
MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS (@ Iowa City, IA; October 30, 2010)
OK, what should we expect when Michigan State doesn't have the ball? The strength of the Sparty defense figures to be in the middle, where they have arguably the Big Ten's best set of linebackers. Their top linebacker is Greg Jones, who was all-everything last year: Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year (by the media; the coaches tabbed Penn State's Jared Odrick), 1st team All-American, and 1st-team All-Big Ten (for the second year in a row). Jones is, as they say, a stat sheet stuffer: 154 tackles (14 TFL), 9 sacks, 1 fumble forced. He is quite good. He's expected to be joined in the LB ranks by Eric Gordon and Chris Norman. Gordon is two-year starter who hasn't picked up nearly as many accolades as Jones, but has been very effective: a year ago he had 92 tackles (7.5 TFL), 3.5 sacks, 1 fumble forced. Norman, a sophomore, is less experienced (just 11 tackles, 1 TFL) but was a highly touted recruit (4* Rivals, 4* Scout, 79 ESPN). Those three look like a pretty formidable trio, but a pair of big-time recruits, Max Bullough (4* Rivals, 4* Scout, 79 ESPN) and William Gholston (5* Rivals, 5* Scout, 83 ESPN, more of a DE/LB hybrid and, yes, the
brother cousin of New York Jets' uber-bust Vernon Gholston) could eat into some of that playing time, too.
In contrast, the glaring weakness of the Spartan defense in 2009 was their secondary -- they gave up 268 ypg and 30 passing touchdowns (while forcing just 8 interceptions). Six teams passed for more than 300 yards against them. For god's sake, they made Adam Weber look like the best QB in the conference when they played Minnesota (19/31, 416 yards, 5 TD/1 INT). Saying that they were bad last year is a grave insult to the word "bad." (Although, on the other hand, they were a brick wall against Iowa for roughly 58 minutes in 2009, before thankfully reverting to form for that final drive.) So in that sense, you can take the fact that they return only half of last year's secondary in one of two ways. An optimist would say that the new faces can hardly be any worse and the experience should have hopefully made the returning players better. A pessimist would argue that it's not a given that experience will improve all players (we don't want to name names, but we're thinking of a player whose name rhymes with Space Invada) and that playing two more (relatively) inexperienced players is also a risk. But on the whole, we'd have to side with the optimist here -- it's hard to envision the Spartan pass defense really being worse than it was a year ago.
At cornerback, returning starter Chris L. Rucker (58 tackles, 8 passes defended, 1 INT) is expected to be joined by Johnny Adams (21 tackles in '08), who played in 12 games, starting two in 2008, before redshirting in 2009. Dana Dixon and Mitchell White look like the main back-up options, but neither is all that experienced. CB does not look like a position where MSU is particularly deep. At safety, the expected starters are returning junior Trenton Robinson and senior Marcus Hyde (older brother of Iowa CB Micah Hyde). Robinson played in 11 games in 2009, starting three at FS and four at SS, and racked up 67 tackles with three passes defended (1 INT). Hyde made eight starts in 2009 and had 48 tackles, so the experience level there isn't too bad. This unit probably won't be one of the Big Ten's best secondaries in 2010, but they shouldn't be Big 12-level horrific, either.
Up front, the defensive line probably features the least experienced unit on MSU's defense. The projected starters at defensive end are Colin Neely (24 tackles, 7 TFL, 3 sacks) and Tyler Hoover (13 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks); Neely played a lot last year, but Hoover didn't. They're slated to be joined by Jerel Worthy (37 tackles, 9 TFL, 4.5 sacks) and Blake Treadwell (11 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks) at the defensive tackle spots. Hoover and Treadwell lack much in the way of experience, though Treadwell was a highly touted recruit (4* Rivals, 77 ESPN). Gholston figures to see action at DE in 2010: you don't often see a 5* prospect at a position of need come in and redshirt, after all.
And just how "special" are the special teams? Not too bad. They lose one of the Big Ten's best placekickers in Brett Swenson (19/22 in 2009, with two of his three misses coming from 50+ yards), but they return one of its best punters in Aaron Bates. Bates was 2nd team All-Big Ten a year ago (41.6 avg, 36.8 net, 23 inside the 20-yard line) and figures to be one of Donahue's fiercest challengers for the punter spot on the All-Big Ten 1st team this year. RS frosh Kevin Muma is Swenson's projected replacement; the odds of him being as good as Swenson right off the bat are... pretty goddamn slim. The return game features the dangerous Keshawn Martin; he was a good kick returner (28.9 avg, 1 TD on 23 returns a year ago) and an average punt returner (7.4 avg on 21 returns a year ago). But he's still an incredibly dangerous weapon in the open field, as evidenced by his six touchdowns of 48+ yards in 2009, so he's definitely someone to keep an eye on in the return game.
Still pretty awesome.
Alright, brainiac, what's gonna happen? Well, it's not exactly going out on a limb to argue that the game will be close: going back to 1980, 16 of the 24 games between the two schools have been decided by seven points or less. The last three games have all been nail-biters: it took two overtimes and a monster second half from Albert Young for Iowa to clip MSU in 2007, MSU forced some crucial turnovers and made a key fourth down stop on Shonn Greene to win in 2008, and Iowa needed "7 got 6" to pull out a win last year. On offense, these are two eerily similar teams: veteran quarterbacks (Stanzi's played more games, but Cousins has been far less turnover-prone), a pair of talented sophomore running backs, experienced talent at wide receiver, and a lot of question marks along the offensive line.
There's definite separation between the two teams on the defensive side of the ball. Sparty has a decided edge at linebacker, where they might have the best set of linebackers in the league (especially if Gholston and Bullough play as well as their hype suggests), but Iowa should have significant edges at defensive line (Iowa returns all four starters from a punishing and productive front four; MSU needs to break in some new faces) and in the secondary (Iowa returns three of four starters from a secondary that helped make Iowa one of the best pass defenses in the nation; Sparty was absolutely abominable at pass defense in 2009).
Iowa will probably have a difficult time running the ball against MSU and their excellent linebackers, but if the new-look offensive line can give Stanzi a decent amount of time in the pocket, he may be able to pick apart the Spartan secondary. (Then again, we thought that in 2009, too, and he was utterly wretched until that final, magical drive.) On the other side of the ball, Iowa's defense appears to match up very well with the Spartan offense on paper: the Iowa defensive line should have a fairly significant advantage over the MSU offensive line, which could have Cousins running for his life a lot and if he does throw it into the secondary, he's throwing the ball against a group that picked off 13 passes in 2009. On the other hand, match-ups haven't seemed to mean a hell of a lot when these two teams have met in the past -- these are often just two rather evenly matched teams that like to beat the piss out of each other when they play. So let's go with Iowa by a pair of field goals.
So how's the rest of their season gonna play out? Like most of their Big Ten brethren, Michigan State faces a pretty lackluster non-conference slate to open the season: home dates with Western Michigan, Notre Dame, and Northern Colorado sandwiched around a "road game" with Florida Atlantic -- in Detroit. I'm sure Florida Atlantic will have a hell of a homefield advantage there. (Although based on the problems the teams are having selling tickets to that titanic clash -- who would have guessed?! -- perhaps MSU is just prepping for the trip to Ryan Field later this year.) Anything less than a 3-1 start out of those games would be a pretty massive disappointment, considering that Western Michigan is predicted to be a middling MAC team, Northern Colorado was a poor I-AA school a year ago, and Florida Atlantic is projected to be an average Sun Belt squad. Notre Dame should be the only non-conference team to give them any sort of challenge -- and much of that depends on your belief in Brian Kelly's ability to quickly rebuild the Notre Dame offense (and get them to play any semblance of defense, which was not a tremendous strong suit of Kelly's Cincinnati teams, either). Sparty's won three of the last five against Notre Dame, so recent history is on their side. Then again, if history repeats itself and we get another rant like this, well, aren't we all a bit more entertained? (Yes. Yes we are.)
(H/T to Reading Rambler for reminding me of this awesome clip.)
October brings a tougher slate of games, though: Wisconsin, @ Michigan, Illinois, @ just Northwestern, and @ Iowa. Sparty will likely be underdogs in two of those games (Wisco, @ Iowa), favorites in another (Illinois), and virtual pushes in the other two (@ Michigan, @ Northwestern), but a winning record in these games is a necessity if Sparty wants to avoid the 6-6/7-5 pit of mediocrity and a return trip to Ford Field for the Pizza Pizza Bowl. MSU has famously taken the last two against Michigan and they match up very well against them aside from the lines (which is obviously a rather large caveat); still, if Cousins has any time at all, he should be able to shred Michigan's woeful pass defense. MSU has dominated Illinois of late (they've won 11 of the last 12), but they've been even with jNW (4-4) over the last decade. But since wins in Iowa City and at home against Wisconsin could be hard to come by, Sparty really needs to win those three games.
November offers a relatively soft landing for the MSU season: home games against Minnesota and Purdue sandwiched around a bye week, followed by the all-important Battle for the Land Grant Trophy against Penn State to wrap up the season. While Penn State looks more vulnerable this year than they have for a few years, they also look like a team that you'd much rather play at the start of the season than at the end. The new faces on the defensive line and at linebacker should be pretty well-experienced by that point and whoever gets the nod at quarterback should also be settled in. So that looks like an unlikely W for Michigan State. On the bright side, home games against Minnesota and Purdue look like much more plausible wins -- and frankly it'd be a bit surprising if they didn't win both of those games. Although there is always the threat of them pulling a Sparty and dropping a game or two that they really shouldn't lose. Still, this looks like roughly an 8-4 squad.