Opponent: Michigan State Spartans (11-1, 7-1 B1G East, No. 5 CFP, AP, Coaches)
Saturday, December 5, 7 p.m., Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis, IN)
Kickoff weather: Wouldn't you know it: 68 degrees and no wind inside the dome.
WHEN MICHIGAN STATE HAS THE BALL
Connor Cook has effectively healed from a shoulder injury suffered in Week 11, and while it cost him the opportunity to face Ohio State, he torched Penn State for 248 yards and three scores last Saturday. He was rewarded for that and an otherwise outstanding senior season by being named the first-team All-Big Ten quarterback, and while Nate Sudfeld was the conference leader in efficiency, it's pretty hard to argue with a 24-4 TD-INT ratio and a 10-1 record as a starter.
Here's the thing, though: Cook is very good. He's not the best Iowa will have seen this season. He's not special. He's effective, to be sure, and he's got a gaggle of talented receivers who make 50-50 jump balls seem... well, not so 50-50. But Michigan State hasn't seen many secondaries as talented as Iowa, and if Cook tries that "throw it up and let Aaron Burbridge or MacGarrett Kings go get it" tactic against the likes of Desmond King or the 6'3" Greg Mabin very often, MSU may be in for a rude surprise.
The Spartans are buoyed significantly by their offensive line finally returning to health, anchored by All-American center candidate Jack Allen, who was last seen running for a garbage-time touchdown against PSU because Mark Dantonio wagered correctly that James Franklin would not punch him out for such a stunt. As ESPN notes above, MSU needed to give 10 different offensive linemen significant minutes this season, and six different starting combinations over the course of the season (and never the same combination two weeks in a row). The Spartans were able to rush for over 200 yards on Ohio State's athletic front seven, and a robust 188/4.9 with three scores on PSU. Gerald Holmes and LJ Scott are fine as a one-two punch at tailback. They, like MSU's offensive line, are not the best Iowa will have seen this season. They're not special.
WHEN IOWA HAS THE BALL
It's easy to watch the Spartans totally dismantle Ohio State's offensive attack and conclude that this is the same ferocious Sparty defensive front it's always been. That would be a mistake. This is not the best Iowa will have seen this season. It isn't special. Shilique Calhoun is strong at DE, to be sure, and the tandem of Malik McDowell and Lawrence Thomas at defensive tackle will be a special challenge for Iowa's interior linemen; it'll be hard to get blockers to the next level.
But Iowa has moved the ball on better defenses. MSU is only fifth in the Big Ten in rush defense—Iowa is second—and the Hawkeyes not only faced the other three better rush defenses, they outperformed the average against all of them—usually with ease. Teams are ranked below by total rush defense.
|Avg. Yards||Avg. YPC||Iowa's Yards||Iowa's YPC|
|No. 5 Wisconsin||97.9||3.19||144||3.6|
|No. 9 Nebraska||113.4||3.75||153||5.5|
|No. 15 Northwestern||117.8||3.45||294||5.8|
Now maybe, MAYBE Michigan State stops Iowa's run game. All we're saying is, the data strongly suggests it would be an anomaly.
The Spartans' pass defense is unusually mortal this season, as for the first time in seemingly ages, the Spartans don't have an all-world lockdown corner to rely on. In fact, the only defensive back to garner anything above honorable mention in the All-Big Ten voting was safety Demetrious Cox, who is pretty good but also only a third-teamer. It's possible to throw on the Spartans, but it's also worth noting that C.J. Beathard faced a downright putrid Nebraska pass defense last week and didn't even eclipse 100 yards. Now, that was in especially cold and blustery conditions, and Kirk Ferentz effectively abandoned the pass in the second half. Perhaps the more favorable conditions let Beathard air the dang ball out this Saturday. Or perhaps Ferentz keeps dancing with the one that brung him, as they say. But Iowa shouldn't be intimidated by this MSU defense. It's very good. It's not the best Iowa will have seen this season. It's not special.
Hey, speaking of not special. Sparty had a rough go of it on punt coverage this season, ceding an average of seven yards off its net punting average thanks to touchbacks and returns. Jake Hartbarger has a big leg, but no touch, and Desmond King should be able to find room on returns this week. Michael Geiger made waves for nailing a 41-yarder to beat Ohio State and performing the Infinity Guitar celebration, but all told he's just an average kicker, with two blocked kicks and a few more puzzling misses. His range is slightly above average at best, but Iowa shouldn't count on him getting the yips; it should just count on him not being very good—and maybe cross some fingers, just in case.
Michigan State is 11-1 for a reason. The Spartans have virtually no straight-up weak points. They are very good. But no aspect of this team is the best Iowa has seen this season. Sparty is not special. And I'll be damned if I pick against the Hawkeyes right here.