Iowa and Michigan State are two teams built pretty similarly on offense. They both have a solid running attack led by workhorse running backs and a lackluster passing game. The predicted rainy weather will put even more emphasis on the running backs. Kirk Ferentz said about Mark Weisman on his radio show on Wednesday, "We plan to have him really tired at the end of every game...We want the other team to be tired, too. Tired of seeing him." Yes. Sounds good to me.
Mark Dantonio is probably thinking the exact same thing about Le'Veon Bell. Which leads me right into my first factor...
Stop Le'Veon Bell
The Spartan offense lives and dies by Bell. He has accounted for over 90% of MSU's rushing yards and half of the team's 14 touchdowns. With TE Dion Sims likely out tomorrow, Bell is also the team's leader in number of receptions with 23. And at 245 pounds he's even returned a few punts for the Spartans.
So yeah, the dude has done it all for the Spartans. He had an astonishing 44 carries in the season opener against Boise State and has gone over 35 carries two other times this season including last week against Indiana.
If you look at MSU's two losses though, Bell didn't get nearly the same number of touches and wasn't nearly as effective. Against Notre Dame, Bell had 19 carries for 77 yards and against OSU, he ran for just 45 yards on 17 carries.
Shutting down Bell puts the offense in the unsteady hands of QB Andrew Maxwell. Admittedly he's played much better since his 3 interception performance against Boise (he hasn't thrown a pick since), but like the other quarterbacks in this conference, he just hasn't been very good.
Maxwell has completed 56% of pass and has a QB rating of 115.89, which puts him at the bottom of the conference (right next to James Vandenberg...crap). He does get his yards though, but it's by throwing it almost 40 times per game. As mentioned above, he'll be without his favorite target Sims (plus Sims' backup is playing with a broken wrist so isn't likely to be catching many balls), and he other receivers has had a serious case of dropsies (they had 7 drops against Notre Dame).
So can Iowa actually shut down MSU's rushing attack? Yeah, I think so. Basically every player who blocks for Bell is injured. In addition to the TE injuries, the fullback suffered a concussion last week (he will still likely play--just look at how Dantonio handled Will Gholston getting
knocked out cold the wind knocked out of him), and the Spartan's two best offensive lineman are out. So this isn't going to be a dominant group leading the way for Bell. If Iowa can hold Bell under 4 yards per carry (which he is only averaging 4.5 on the season), then I think the Hawks have a good shot at winning.
Have an offensive identity
SMA had a nice post about this on Wednesday. Iowa is getting back to its roots, running the ball, using play-action, etc... While Greg Davis might be tempted to look at the way Indiana carved apart the MSU defense in the first half last week, as Kirk Ferentz said, "we don't play the way they play."
And why should Iowa? The up-tempo stuff hasn't really worked since the desperate attempt against Pitt last year. It doesn't blend with the rest of the offensive scheme. And the way Mark Weisman is running the ball, it makes much more sense to try to grind it out on his back?
Iowa needs to come out and establish the run. Do its thing. Get a passing game going through play-action. MSU's defense is pretty aggressive with blitzes right up the middle on passing downs and we've seen how Vandenberg handles that (which is not well at all), so it'll be important for Iowa not to get in to too many of those obvious passing downs. MSU will also play a lot of man coverage on the outside. Keenan Davis has shown ability to make plays against man coverage, so the Hawks need to exploit the Spartans aggression. Try a fade route or something.
Oh, and it's a road game...and on-the-road Vandenberg was not a good Vandenberg last year. Hopefully he's got that corrected.
Win the turnover battle
The last two years that Iowa and Michigan State have played the games have gotten out of hand early thanks to turnovers. In 2010, Michigan State's first 6 drives ended: fumble, interception, interception, punt, turnover on downs, interception. And Iowa built a 37-0 lead. Last year it was an interception on Iowa's second drive that got the momentum rolling early for the Spartans and a fumble on Iowa's final drive that ended any hope of a comeback.
I don't expect the game to go like either of the previous 2 because neither offense is good enough to rack up 30 points in a half. But in a low-scoring and close game like I expect this to be, the turnover battle could be even more important. One big play could decide this game.
The good news, Iowa is one of the best teams in the country in turnover margin and are current +7 on the year. Vandenberg has thrown just 2 picks and Iowa's lost just 1 fumble. Michigan State is more even at just +2 in turnovers on the year. The Spartans have had a little bit of a fumble problem with 7 fumbles this year, but have been lucky to only lose 3 of them.
Cut down on penalties
Iowa and Michigan State have been committed a lot of costly penalties this year. Iowa had 6 major penalties against CMU. MSU had its own problem with penalties last week with 8 for 115 yards...7 of those penalties were of the 15 yard variety. The two teams are almost even averaging right about 60 penalty yards per game.
Iowa had a couple of bad penalties against Minnesota, but most of them were by players thrust into new roles. Andrew Donnal, starting for the first time in place of injured Austin Blythe, had a false start and a holding penalty. Greg Castillo, filling in for B.J. Lowery, had a PI. (Blythe and Lowery may or may not be back tomorrow...KF has been kind of wishy-washy on it.) And the two young TEs, Ray Hamilton and Jake Duzey who have both just started to see more playing time, both had a penalty. So all those dumb penalties are hopefully out of their system and Iowa can play a clean game.
The big thing to watch here is the retaliation type personal fouls that plagued Iowa against CMU. Michigan State has a track record of eye-gouging, twisting helmets, punching in the neck, and just playing dirty. So Iowa needs to keep its cool and roll with the punches. Literally.
The formula for both teams defensively will be stop the run, make them pass. Neither team is good at passing, so it'll be a low scoring, defensive battle...classic B1G. It will be interesting too how the weather impacts the game. Right now there is a 100% chance of rain tomorrow. So if anything, that'll just amplify the crappy passing and the importance of the rushing game.
Ultimately, I think the difference in this game is that Iowa will be able to run the ball a little bit better with an offensive line that has been clicking and a running back/fullback/tank that has been dominant.
Final Score: Iowa 20 - Michigan State 17