What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? This week: Chris V. at The Only Colors, SB Nation's excellent blog for all things Sparty.
1) How important is this game to MSU? On paper, this game looks like the biggest impediment to a 4-0 B1G start for Sparty, with home games against Indiana and Purdue coming up next and then a road game with Illinois.
An MSU beat writer has called this one of the biggest games in the Mark Dantonio era, and I have to agree. Like you said, the schedule sets up for a great start to the conference season if they can get this one. With the offensive struggles of the past two seasons, there are some doubts about the future of the program. A win in Iowa City could springboard them to as good as a 7-1 record and quell those fears heading into November contending for a division title. Add in that Kirk Ferentz seems to have Dantonio's number a bit, yes, this is a huge game.
2) So who's going to be the quarterback for MSU on Saturday? Connor Cook started the Notre Dame game, but it looks like Andrew Maxwell got called on late in that game, too. Is there still a quarterback controversy for the Spartans, or is Cook the guy? What should Iowa fans know about Cook before Saturday's game?
It's Cook, and there isn't a quarterback controversy, though the coaches aren't helping fans believe that by putting Maxwell in for the final drive against Notre Dame. Cook is the lone starter on the depth chart, and he's the lone guy at this point. What you should know about him is that there's a reason he wasn't the starter coming into the season. Cook's the guy because Maxwell didn't perform well. His mechanics aren't great, especially his footwork, and it results in inaccurate passes. But he's a big guy with a big arm and can move.
3) What other offensive players should Iowa fans know about? Has a running back emerged as the primary replacement for Le'Veon Bell yet? Which wide receivers are worth knowing?
The running back position is basically down to two players, speedy Jeremy Langford and small and powerful Nick Hill, both of whom have been pretty good this season, and the team's YPC is a bit higher than a year ago. MSU fans want to see more runs than passes, so hopefully they'll be the focus of the offense. Among receivers, it's a large group full of potential but little results. We were expecting Aaron Burbridge to have sophomore leap and be one of the top receivers in the Big Ten, but route-running and drops are plaguing him (and most of the others), so sophomore Macgarrett Kings has emerged as the No. 1 guy, simply because he can catch the ball. That's basically where the passing game is at right now.
4) Michigan State's defense has looked absolutely smothering so far this season. Are they as good as their stats indicate? What are their biggest strengths? Do they have any notable weaknesses?
I mean, the context of opponents certainly skews the numbers a bit, but this defense is every bit as good as it was hyped up to be. The pass rush from the front four alone hasn't been spectacular, but the run defense has been great, leading to 3rd-and-longs. That has to be the biggest strength. MSU likes to load the box and blitz, leaving cornerbacks on islands. That's one weakness Notre Dame tried to attack. They didn't have much success, though they got enough pass interference calls to lead to all 17 of their points. Another weakness is on screen passes to running backs, because it uses MSU's aggressiveness against itself. But this defense creates pressure all over the field and creates a lot of mistakes by the offenses.
5) What's the expectation level like for this team? Is it Big Ten Championship Game or bust? Given the quality of the defense (seemingly stellar) and the relative softness of the schedule (no Ohio State, no Penn State, no Wisconsin, Michigan in East Lansing), this seems like it could be a pretty strong year for Sparty. What does this team need to do to meet expectations?
A few years ago, this was looking like a Rose Bowl Or Bust year, because of the offensive pieces and experience on defense. A number of offensive pieces left early for the NFL Draft, and the returning pieces aren't great, so I think the goal has adjusted to competing for a division title, which I mentioned in the first question. We know the offense isn't going to be good. It just needs to be not terrible for this team to accomplish some things.
6) Speaking of the schedule... this is the last year for the oh-so-beloved Legends and Leaders divisions and, more importantly, the last year that Iowa and Michigan State will be in the same division. How do you feel about Michigan State moving to the new West Division next year? And how much will you miss the annual clashes with Iowa?
Well, we know it's going to be tough, competing with Michigan, Ohio State, a less-damaged-than-previously-
7) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
I'm going with Iowa 17-13. We all know this is going to be an ugly close way. I can't see it being anything else. Both teams will struggle to move the ball, and a turnover in a bad spot could be the difference between winning and losing. Kinnick Stadium has been a tough place, and Ferentz has Dantonio's number.
Thanks for being a good sport, Chris, although I still hope your team loses by 50 on Saturday. You can check out Chris and the rest of the TOC crew at The Only Colors. You can also follow Chris on Twitter at @ChrisVannini and TOC on Twitter at @TheOnlyColors. The Iowa-Michigan State game is in Iowa City on Saturday, October 5, and is scheduled to start at 11:00 am CT, with television coverage from ESPN2.