What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he (or she) answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: Joe from The Only Colors, SB Nation's fine blog for all things Michigan State.
1) Michigan State has ended the season where they began and where they expected to be -- in the top-5 and contending for a Big Ten championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff. But it hasn't always been the smoothest ride to this point -- there were some closer-than-expected wins early in the season, a miraculous win over Michigan, and an ugly loss against Nebraska. What's the feeling like among Spartan fans about this season? Did it go as expected? Was it more enjoyable than expected? More stressful?
JOE: As a baseline, I think most reasonable, non-total-homer MSU fans recognized that it was lunacy to presume a win in Columbus against that OSU squad. That's why before the season started, most of the TOC staff picked a 10-2 or 11-1 record, without MSU in the Big Ten Championship. And we would've been very happy with that! After all, John L Smith was less than a decade ago.
With that in mind, the season has been a wild success, though also an emotional roller coaster. The non-conference win against Oregon was incredible after losing to them last season, which faded some after Oregon's beatdown against Utah. Injuries, closer-than-expected wins against Purdue and Rutgers, and a surge by Regular Michigan left most fans anxious about the Paul Bunyan trophy, but then that game ended in the most glorious way imaginable. Most fans were apoplectic after the loss to Nebraska, but then the win over Ohio State without Connor Cook made everything right. Plus the win against Oregon looks pretty good again. Lots of lows, but also incredible highs.
More enjoyable? Yes. More stressful? Absolutely. A College Football Playoff berth and a Big Ten Title would be considered wild success. A loss in the championship game would make the bowl game would be a bit of a letdown.
2) What's your perception of the Iowa-Michigan State... can we call it a rivalry? Maybe not. It feels like there was something building there between these programs in the early-mid 2000s with really close, down-to-the-wire, hard-hitting games in 2007, 2008, and 2009 and a big-time blowout upset win for Iowa in 2010.
JOE: I think Iowa-MSU is totally underrated. I actually wrote a whole article about the Dantonio-Ferentz series (which Ferentz owns 4-3, by the way). You didn't even mention the 2011 game where Iowa fans booed MSU players with injury ;). Or the 2012 game which was horrible in every respect, or the 2013 game which was Connor Cook's coming out party. The 2009 game in particular has lingered in the collective MSU consciousness.
So, I'm with you. Definitely not a "rivalry" but something different and heated. Mostly because Wisconsin is our #RealRival.
3) Connor Cook and Aaron Burbridge were both All-Big Ten first team selections and form the most dangerous (and prolific) quarterback-wide receiver tandem in the conference. What's made them so good this season? And what other offensive players will Iowa need to worry about slowing down on Saturday?
JOE: The thing about Cook and Burbridge has been that they're virtually unstoppable regardless of opponent. Cook is going to put back shoulder throws in tight windows and Burbridge is going to get them. In the game against Regular Michigan, the Wolverines' Jourdan Lewis had six pass breakups and generally did a fantastic job on Burbridge. Burbridge still ended the day with 9 catches for 132 yards. It is incredible.
As far as other offensive weapons go, Macgarrett Kings and R.J. Shelton are the other main targets of Cook's passes and both have big-play ability. The running back situation has been shuffled a few times this season, but it has seemed to settle on sophomore Gerald Holmes and true freshman L.J. Scott. Neither is particularly a big-play threat but both run hard and gain lots of yardage after contact. Josiah Price is the main threat at tight end, especially in the red zone.
4) Pat Narduzzi's defenses were arguably the most defining characteristic of the current era of Michigan State teams. How has MSU adjusted to life without Narduzzi? Is this still a defense-first team or has the offense taken on a bigger role now?
JOE: It's been up-and-down. Narduzzi is certainly missed but Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel (the nephew of Jim Tressel) have done a nice job as co-coordinators of filling Nard-dog's shoes. The biggest thing for the defense has been injuries and new personnel; MSU has lost three presumed starters (LB Ed Davis, CB Vayante Copeland, and S R.J. Williamson) for all or most of the year. Pair that with the losses of Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond and you've got a recipe for growing pains. Still, the front seven is a strength for MSU with Shilique Calhoun, Malik McDowell, and Lawrence Thomas up front, alongside a strong linebacking corps headlined by Yet Another Bullough.
The evolution of this team has been interesting to watch throughout the year. I think the staff as a whole understands that the offense has come a long way from 2013 and can stand as a solid unit in and of itself, so the aggression of Narduzzi's defenses isn't always needed. What happened in 2014 against Oregon and Ohio State is that the defenses were overly aggressive and ceded too many big plays. They've dialed it back to an approach that's a bit more bend-but-don't-break, partially due to personnel defensively but also because the offense can score points consistently now.
5) Michigan State's pass defense has been really inconsistent this year. They've given up 285+ yards in six of twelve games, but they also held five opponents under 200 yards passing (and gave up just 206 passing yards in the sixth game). What's been the difference between Good MSU and Bad MSU when it comes to pass defense? What's been the most vulnerable aspect of the Spartan secondary?
JOE: As mentioned above, the secondary has been shuffled throughout the season; at one point two true freshmen safeties started multiple games in a row. I think the main difference between the good and bad outings has been matchup-specific. Air Force doesn't really pass the ball. Purdue is Purdue (plus that game was in the rain). Regular Michigan had yet to figure out their passing game. Maryland can't throw their way out of a wet paper bag, and the Ohio State game may as well have been played inside of a wet paper bag. In the bad MSU pass defense outings, though, MSU has sometimes just been in control of the game and the opponent needed to pass the ball. At TOC I've been advocated for #DeathToTotalYardageStats for (partially) this reason. MSU is #8 in passing S&P+ according to Bill Connelly.
Anyways, the secondary has sorted itself out since the Maryland game, with a few guys coming back from injury allowing Demetrious Cox to play his more natural role of safety. Arjen Colquhoun has developed tremendously from where he was at the beginning of the year, and so has Montae Nicholson. Darian Hicks has elevated his play from a season ago as well.
The most vulnerable part of the MSU defense is always deep in the middle of the field where safeties may have some difficulty communicating, and to some extent deep fade routes if you've got a receiver who can take advantage of MSU's man coverage out there.
6) Could special teams be the x-factor in Saturday's game? Michigan State ranks near the middle or bottom of the conference in several special teams categories (kick and punt returns, opponent kick and punt returns, field goal kicking) -- how vulnerable are they to a big play on special teams?
JOE: Oh, special teams. They giveth, and they taketh away.
MSU has had multiple games this year where special teams may have cost them the game, if not for other special teams plays. MSU gave up a return touchdown to Oregon but won by a field goal. MSU ceded huge field position advantages to Regular Michigan before the final play of the game. A Michael Geiger missed field goal against Ohio State loomed large... until a Michael Geiger made field goal ended the game.
So, yes. Special teams could be an x-factor in any phase, really. MSU has flubbed snaps, missed extra points, given up kick and punt return touchdowns, committed bad penalties, been terrible on punt returns, and had several fakes fail miserably. They've also generated multiple turnovers and had two walk-off victories on special teams.
MSU special teams have basically been a random number generator.
7) What are the keys to victory for Michigan State on Saturday? What are 2-3 things that they need to do to emerge victorious in Indianapolis?
JOE: Iowa has done a nice job all year of limiting big plays of opponents; they're #8 nationally in IsoPPP per Bill Connelly. I think MSU needs to bust a couple big plays on offense, given that running the ball in this series is always an adventure.
I think the MSU defensive line needs to get some pressure on C.J. Beathard, given that MSU's secondary is still a little suspect. There have been times this year for MSU where that hasn't been an issue at all, and other times it feels like the pass rush falls apart.
Finally, MSU just needs to avoid disaster on special teams. Despite the struggles, MSU is top-25 in the nation in terms of average field position on both sides of the ball (just like Iowa, actually). If special teams are a stalemate, I think that benefits an MSU team with advantages elsewhere.
8) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
JOE: I have very little read on this Iowa team: they blew out Northwestern on the road (is Northwestern good? They're 10-2 and beat Stanford but got blown out at home twice), but then struggled a bit with Indiana, Minnesota, and Pitt. They won a slugfest in Madison but then only led Illinois by 3 in the fourth quarter. Twelve games is a small sample size.
Iowa hasn't had a set of offensive and defensive lines like MSU's to deal with yet this season, and I think that ends up being the difference in the game. MSU is peaking at the right time and is relatively healthy at important positions that caused close games against inferior opponents earlier in the season.
But it won't be easy. MSU 24 - Iowa 20
Thanks for being a good sport, Joe, but I still hope your team gets mollywhopped tomorrow night. You can check out the TOC crew at The Only Colors. You can also follow TOC on Twitter at @TheOnlyColors.The Iowa-Michigan State game is in Indianapolis, IN on Saturday, December 5, and is scheduled to start at approximately 7:15 pm CT, with TV coverage from FOX.