Iowa and Michigan State. Kirk Ferentz and Mark Dantonio. Cro-Magnon football brothers from a different Cro-Magnon football mother. Two starting halfbacks that weigh a combined 480 pounds. Runs between the tackles. Play action. Clouds of dust like they're playing the game in The Grapes of Wrath.
(1) There is little question that Michigan State has more talent, more experience, and better results this year. Iowa is extremely young on both sides of the ball and still in the process of implementing a new offense, particularly in the passing game. The Hawkeyes clearly spent the second half of the Minnesota game working on the aerial attck and failing at a spectacular level, going 4/11 for 23 yards in the face of unrelenting blitzes that were not exploited. As for each team's early season returns, the results speak for themselves. Iowa lost to Central Michigan. Michigan State beat the Chippewas by 34.
(2) Any talk of the bye week allowing for drastic improvement is ignoring the past. Last year, we thought Iowa was getting a brand new no-huddle offense with a bye week to implement it. The next week, Ferentz scrapped it in about two plays while Iowa scored three points. In 2008, Iowa broke through with a 38-16 win over Wisconsin headed to the bye, and promptly lost to Illinois two weeks later. Iowa is 2-4 off the bye in the last decade, with a couple of losses that never should have been.
(3) It wasn't that long ago that this game was unwinnable on the road for either side. Iowa's 2009 victory in East Lansing was the first by a road team in this series since 1995. Michigan State's blowout victory in Kinnick was the first by a Spartan squad in Iowa City in 22 years. The travel itself isn't easy, and both venues are filled with voracious fans, and better teams than this one have lost to worse Michigan State squads in Spartan Stadium (I'm looking at you, 2008).
(4) I love James Vandenberg as a player and a person, and anyone calling for his benching should probably just become a Nebraska fan already, but holy hell has he been a horrible road quarterback. Vandenberg has now started six true road games with a record of 1-5, a 57.5% completion percentage, exactly one game with more than 20 completions, and a pass efficiency rating of 121.3, which would be good for 97th in the nation this season. Of course, that 121.3 rating would place him ahead of 2012 James Vandenberg, who has racked up a 113.0 rating. Only three full-time quarterbacks at BCS-conference programs have been worse this season. By way of comparison, Steele Jantz has a 127.3 rating this year.
(5) Indiana played tight with Michigan State last week by running at a high tempo and killing Sparty with screen passes. Kirk Ferentz has dismissed that strategy as contrary to Iowa's philosophy:
"We're really not Indiana. They were up tempo [against Michigan State]. So if you get the effectiveness ‑‑ again, we don't play the way they play -- what they did in the first half was awfully good, but in the second half they didn't have the ball very much. So there's pluses and minuses to everything, but we have to be who we are."
This is despite the fact that Iowa's new offensive coordinator has preached the virtues of up-tempo offense since February and has implemented a passing game that is predicated on throwing 447 screen passes per game.
So, yes, there are a lot of things stacked against Iowa this weekend. The Hawkeyes will attempt to play Michigan State's game in Spartan Stadium against a Michigan State team that is, on paper, better on both sides of the ball. Iowa's offense was unable to exploit Sparty's defensive weaknesses -- blitz coverage issues and tempo -- when Minnesota came at them with it two weeks ago, and that was Minnesota. The Hawkeyes feature a walk-on running back and a quarterback who has struggled on the road even when he wasn't at the bottom of the pass efficiency list. And it comes off a bye week, which has never been Iowa's friend during Ferentz's tenure.
There is a growth process for a team this young, a process that has been followed by Ferentz in the past. There is learning to play at home, learning to play in critical and emotional games, learning to play in the Big Ten, learning to play on the road, and then learning to win in all of those circumstances. Iowa teams lose to the Central Michigans in 2012 so that they win at Michigan State in 2014. For a team to jump from level one to level seventeen in three weeks and win a game like this where the entirety of the evidence is stacked against them would require a tube that would take us to late 2013. That unlikely reality is what we're asking this week.
But we're still asking for it, aren't we?