Vegas has had Iowa as an underdog since this matchup has been announce (-6.5 moving to -7), and it’s easy to see why: Mississippi State has an athleticism Iowa has yet to face on defense. The gap in athleticism widened further with Noah Fant’s decision to sit out. Frankly, it’s a little difficult to identify where Iowa can find any edge when they have the ball.
And that’s where Ihmir Smith-Marsette comes in. He has proven, by way of being second in the country in kickoff return yardage, he can translate his sheer athleticism onto the football field. (Mississippi State is actually in the bottom 50 in kickoff defense, though the difference between 51st and 100th is ~2 yards.) The Bulldogs have accumulated 36 sacks for 11th in the country at a clean 3 per game. Iowa will need to leverage some quick routes to neutralize their pass rush.
Among MSU cornerbacks, only Cameron Dantzler has more than one interception as the team has just 12 on the season. Of course part of that is the defensive line forcing the ball out quickly, but the Bulldogs have forced opposing quarterbacks into a 54% completion percentage and 5.4 yards per attempt.
Unfortunately, the most points Mississippi State has allowed are 28 to Kentucky in SEPTEMBER. This unit is tremendous. It likely means Kirk Ferentz is going to recede into what he knows, and if Scott Dochterman’s preview is any indicator, Kirk will still rely on beating MSU at the point of attack.
It is an unwinnable battle.
But Iowa can win some battles outside if Nate Stanley is given enough time in the pocket to get the ball out there. Catching MSU off guard with a dedication to getting the ball on the perimeter would further open up the inside of the field for both Iowa’s running backs and T.J. Hockenson.
It will be tough and require one of Nate Stanley’s best games of his career, even if he does not rack up a ton of yards. In watching highlights of Dantzler and the Bulldogs’ other starting cornerback, Jamal Peters, both are incredibly sound in a variety of coverages. Their aggressive defense up front mixes in a variety of coverages and the two are sure tacklers, display impressive ball skills, and stick with receivers downfield.
If Iowa is able to play a low-scoring game as Kirk Ferentz is wont to do, it does not mean Iowa needs to exploit a matchup over and over. Brian Ferentz said as much in his time with the media: “If you’re trying to run your offense through one player, then you’re gonna be sorry at the end of the day.” With Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Iowa has a player who can swing a game on a play, which is something Iowa will need if they hope to win tomorrow.