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Iowa Football: Five Questions with Michigan State

Is Iowa about to be 0-3?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan
Can the Hawkeyes slow down Iowa native Rocky Lombardi?
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Another week, another matchup where the Hawkeyes are favored. Iowa comes into their showdown with the Michigan State Spartans favored by 9, the largest margin Vegas has given them on game week all season. Despite what Vegas is saying, the consensus in Hawkeye Nation is this game will be a close one and not many have faith the Hawkeyes will pull it out.

But what are they thinking in East Lansing? To get some insight, we turn to Ryan O’Bleness of The Only Colors, SB Nation’s home for the Michigan State Spartans. We heard from Ryan earlier in the week on his preseason views for this team, now we’re circling back for his updated thoughts on the Spartans and how this matchup between Iowa and MSU might shake out.

Here are five questions on the Michigan State Spartans.

BHGP: Iowa fans got to know and hate Mark Dantonio over the years, but now there’s a new head man in East Lansing. Stylistically, how does Mel Tucker compare with what we grew to know as the MSU way of playing under Dantonio and how do Spartan fans feel about the hire a whole two games into his first season?

TOC: Oh yes, who could forget that 2015 Big Ten Championship game under Mark Dantonio? ;)

There are some similarities and differences with the Mel Tucker regime. For instance, Tucker still puts a huge emphasis on the rivalry game with Michigan last week, which was kind of Dantonio’s calling card — and surprise, surprise, the Spartans got the win again this season. The passion for the program from the head coach has not seemed to drop off. Of course, all of the current players (besides a few walk-ons and transfers) were Dantonio players and recruits. So, while the schemes are not exactly the same, and the personnel as far as who is actually on the field is slightly different, a lot of the same players who were there with Dantonio are still the ones getting the reps now, but Tucker hasn’t been afraid to play some of the younger guys either, such as wide receiver Ricky White and running back Jordon Simmons. One of the more baffling personnel decisions is with running back Elijah Collins — who was the Big Ten’s leading returning rusher heading into the season — who has gotten very limited playing time so far this season.

Offensively, under Tucker and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson, you’re seeing a lot more deep shots in the passing game than you would have under Dantonio. Similarly to the Dantonio staff, you’re seeing a lot of runs on first and second down, though. The current MSU offense wants to be “multiple,” but you see a lot of 11 personnel with three wide receivers and a single running back and tight end/H-back. It’s a lot of shotgun and pistol formations. The offense has also been effective throwing screen passes.

Defensively, under Tucker and defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton, you’re seeing a lot of 4-2-5 nickel looks — four defensive linemen (with possibly one of the edge rushers standing up in a two-point stance or in a traditional three-point stance), two linebackers and five defensive backs.

Also, the players have really bought into Tucker’s process and culture. They believe in him and that’s obvious. He is usually a level-headed, even-keeled guy, but the energy and swag he brings is obvious.

As for the fans, there was a lot of confidence in this staff heading into the season and looking ahead to the future. The surprising loss to Rutgers (it was the first time Michigan State had lost to Rutgers since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten) had many fans reconsidering their faith in Tucker, but those concerns were overblown, as it was his first game after probably the strangest offseason in college football history. But after a win over the rival Michigan Wolverines, in a game where the Spartans were 21.5-point underdogs, all is forgiven and the majority of MSU fans are all aboard the Tucker Train with a full head of steam. The future looks bright.

BHGP: The Hawkeyes have looked like a dumpster fire through two weeks, but Michigan State has really been on more of a roller coaster ride with, and I had to check this multiple times, SEVEN turnovers in a week one loss to Rutgers but a nice bounce back victory over Michigan in week two. What was the difference in those two games and is there any hope Iowa game summon that fumble demon from week one?

TOC: I don’t want to take anything away from Rutgers — the Scarlet Knights out-executed the Spartans on that day — but the seven turnovers and mental mistakes were absolutely the reason why Michigan State lost that game, and it was more so the Spartans shooting themselves in the foot than Rutgers just dominating. I wholeheartedly believe that if MSU even had three less turnovers, the Spartans win that game. Again, losing to a team you’ve never lost to in Big Ten play is embarrassing — Rutgers has been a Big Ten bottom feeder for years, although look much improved this year with Greg Schiano back at the helm. So there was a lot of disappointment in that performance from Spartans fans. But again, it was the first game after an offseason schedule that was completely derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. With that said, I think the majority of the Michigan State faithful would take a loss to Rutgers and a win over Michigan in any given season, myself included. Who knows, maybe that sloppy loss to Rutgers was the kick in the butt the team needed, and perhaps that’s why MSU went into Ann Arbor and absolutely punked a team it was supposed to lose to by more than three touchdowns.

The difference between the two games was of course turnovers first and foremost — Michigan State had zero turnovers against Michigan. The staff put a huge emphasis on ball security during the practice week, and that translated to the game. The next thing is sacks. The offensive line had a huge improvement from Week One to Week Two, and after giving up three sacks against Rutgers, the Spartans did not allow a single sack versus Michigan. The next thing was penalties. The Spartans committed five less penalties for 21 yards less compared to the Wolverines. And quite frankly, Mel Tucker and his staff out-coached Jim Harbaugh and his staff and the MSU players out-executed the U of M players. This was the type of win that could shape the program moving forward.

I wouldn’t anticipate a seven-turnover game against Iowa, but zero turnovers in back-to-back weeks is a lot to ask for. I think the Spartans keep it to two giveaways or less this week. My vote is for “or less.”

BHGP: Just wanted to give you an opportunity to take another victory lap on the Michigan W. Iowa fans missed the opportunity for a sixth straight win over Iowa State this year with the scheduling change, but we certainly understand the joys of gloating over a rivalry win so feel free to fill us in on a few of the reasons why the Wolverines stink and why Michigan is clearly a Spartan State.

TOC: Haha, the thing about Michigan and its fans that irks Michigan State fans (and I imagine many fans and programs around the Big Ten and country, of course Ohio State comes to mind) is just the sheer arrogance that exudes from the program, which has absolutely no backing because the Wolverines haven’t accomplished anything in many, many years. The last time Michigan won a Big Ten Championship, I was in the eighth grade. I am now a 30-year-old man. Just look at this response from Michigan quarterback Joe Milton following the loss, and watch how Michigan State linebacker Antjuan Simmons gives him a lesson in classiness.

It’s stuff like that — a sense of entitlement with no accountability — that drives MSU fans crazy about Michigan. Unfortunately for the Michigan program under Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines are all preseason hype with little results on the field, each and every year.

Michigan State went into the Big House as a three-touchdown-plus underdog, punched Michigan in the mouth, and walked away with the Paul Bunyan Trophy. This was actually the ninth time in the past 13 meetings the Spartans have defeated the Wolverines. It’s also the fifth victory in the last seven games played in Ann Arbor. I could say a lot more on this, but I’ll keep it at that.

Go Green!

BHGP: Ok, back to this week. The Spartans seemed to struggle on the ground a bit in week one, gaining just 50 yards rushing while passing 43 times. Things evened out a bit against Michigan with a 38/32 split rushing/passing and 126 yards on the ground. How was Michigan State able to get the ground game going and what should the Hawkeyes be doing from a scheme perspective to try to replicate the success of Rutgers?

TOC: Coach Tucker touched on this a bit in his press conference this week, but I think a lot of it comes down to the coaching from offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic and just the willingness to get better by the players.

“We expected improvement from Week One to Week Two,” Tucker said. “Coach Kap (offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic) does an outstanding job in terms of coaching. Coaching is teaching, and he is an excellent teacher. He hammers technique and fundamentals, along with playing with toughness and grit, and playing together and communicating, and always pushing guys to be better. Last week was a very physical week of practice. It was tough, it was taxing and guys had to strain each and every day in the drill work and in the group work and in the team work, and also were challenged in the classroom They respond to Coach Kap and what he’s demanding that they do.”

As I mentioned above, the offensive line had a massive improvement from the first game to the second, in both the run game and the pass. The ground game still struggled somewhat — outside of a 28-yard by Jordon Simmons, the team didn’t find a ton of success there (about 3.3 yards per carry), but as you note, an improvement overall.

One thing Rutgers did was line a defensive tackle up slanted toward the line scrimmage, or as Matt Millen would continuously say during the broadcast, “cock nosed.” This worked well for the Scarlet Knights to get penetration. I’m not sure Michigan did a ton of that, but I would have to review more of the film. So that is something Iowa may want to try to replicate.

Michigan State also started sophomore Nick Samac at center for an injured Matt Allen, and he made an instant impact. I mean, just watch Samac, the center, here on this game-clinching screen pass that went for a touchdown. He gets all the way to the sideline and drives the cornerback out of the play, clearing the way for Connor Heyward to score.

BHGP: Interestingly, from a purely statistical standpoint the MSU defense was better against Rutgers except for the obvious issue of giving up 38 points. That was largely attributable to the huge number of turnovers. But against the Wolverines, Michigan State gave up more than 450 yards of total offense and 150 yards on the ground. How did Michigan find success and how should the Hawkeyes be attacking the Spartan defense?

TOC: I think with the Rutgers game, the defense was of course defending a short field, as you point out. That means that the yards allowed were going to be shorter, but the points higher. For the Michigan overall yardage totals, some of that is including Michigan’s last drive, which was 18 plays for 93 yards and took 4:34 off of the clock, with just over five minutes to play — so that was designed by the defense to go into prevent mode, play bend but don’t break football, and force Michigan to eat time off of the clock.

So I would say where Michigan State actually lies is somewhere in between those two performances. The defensive gameplan was actually excellent and the Spartans shut down Michigan and its running game/passing game for the most part, and made plays when they needed to. Quarterback Joe Milton led the Wolverines in rushing yards with just 59 yards, and Michigan’s 150 yards on the ground against MSU was over 100 yards less than what it did against Minnesota the previous week (256 yards). So, I’m not too concerned about that, and I think MSU, as per usual, is going to be strong against the run all season.

I would say if Iowa wants to have success in the running game, try to get to the edges. You’re not going to be able to run it up the middle against the likes of Naquan Jones and Jacob Slade in the interior defensive line. Also, Michigan State is not going to be fooled by your pre-snap motion, like Michigan tried to do often last week, so don’t overthink it and get complicated. Win your one-on-one blocking battles, get your speed to the edge and you’ll be successful.

BHGP: Alright, prediction time. This one opened at Iowa -9 and every Hawkeye fan I’ve come across is ready to bet the farm (both proverbially and in some cases literally) on MSU to cover and likely win. What’s the feeling amongst the Spartan faithful and what’s your projected outcome?

TOC: I think Spartan Nation is feeling confident after last week, but certainly are not looking past the Hawkeyes. While I could easily see Iowa winning this one at home, I would be shocked if it was by nine points or more. I actually think Michigan State wins outright in a low scoring, physical, classic Big Ten battle. I picked the Spartans to upset the Hawkeyes as my preseason “surprise” win prediction. I am going to stick with that and say MSU wins with a score around 20-17.

So there you have it, Hawkeye fans are expecting a loss and Spartan fans are expecting a win. Perhaps in a year as wild as 2020 that should be taken as a good sign. Here’s hoping we’re all wrong.

Thanks again to Ryan at The Only Colors. Be sure to give him a follow in Twitter @ryanobleness. You can also follow TOC @TheOnlyColors. You’ll also want to head over to their home page for additional perspective on the matchup this weekend. They’ve got some great preview content up, including my Q&A with them.

Go Hawks!