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Matchup to Watch: Michigan State’s CBs vs. Iowa’s WRs

Can the Hawkeye wideouts find space against a defensive backfield which figures to play tight man coverage?

NCAA Football: Iowa at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

We’ll use this space to briefly recap last week’s matchup to watch before heading to the this weeks.

Week 1: Rondale Moore vs. the CASH
Week 2: Isaiah Bowser vs. Iowa’s LBs

Isaiah Bowser had 3.4 yards/carry which would be a winning stat if Pat Fitzgerald weren’t so committed to the run game as Bowser toted the rock 25 times for 85 yards. In fact, none of Northwestern’s RBs were particularly efficient (Drake Anderson had 7 carries for 1 yard and Jesse Brown had 10 for 21, but with 2 TDs!) which makes the Hawkeyes’ loss to the Wildcats all the more infuriating.

Seth Benson did acquit himself nicely in his starting debut with 13 tackles, as Nick Niemann added 10. Barrington Wade was a little quieter - Phil Parker went to the 4-2-5 look with regularity which left Wade as the odd man out - and tallied just a single tackle.

Anyways...


The Iowa Hawkeyes (0-2) enter Saturday’s contest with the Michigan State Spartans (1-1) down, arguably, their biggest playmaker on offense. Ihmir Smith-Marsette made the incredibly reckless and indefensible decision to get behind the wheel drunk and drive down Riverside Drive 40 MPH over the speed limit, which will have him serve a single game, suspension.

(For posterity, we discussed this Monday on The Pants Party - ~31:40 mark below - and my prediction was laughably wrong. I am incredibly surprised it was not extended considering the “excessive speeding” add-on to the OWI arrest. Sorry we did not get the pod posted on its normal timeline)

(back to the blog)

With ISM out, Tyrone Tracy takes his place on the depth chart as the wide receiver opposite Brandon Smith and also probably the guy who should run at least a jet sweep or two whether or not the opponent has a season’s worth of film showing they struggle stopping end arounds. In those five games, Tracy had 21 catches for 371 yards (17.7 YPC) and a couple touchdowns.

Filling Tracy’s role is expected to be current punt returner supreme and guy I definitely couldn’t pick out of a lineup, Charlie Jones.

NCAA Football: Buffalo Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Without shading Jones too much, which I only do because I genuinely like what he brings to the table, there’s reason to believe he can bring value to Iowa’s corps. When he last lined up as a wideout, in 2018 for the Buffalo Bulls, he gathered 18 passes for 395 yards, good for a jaw-dropping 21.9 yards per reception. His highlights kinda sorta do not disappoint.

MAC competition aside, Jones is regularly bringing in throws when faced with man coverage at multiple levels of the defense. Additionally, he does not dilly-dally once he has the ball and quickly shifts his movement north/south to maximize yards after the catch. It is not relevant to this particular topic, but he looks very capable as a kick returner in Smith-Marsette’s absence, as well.

Brandon Smith will look to absolve a low point in his Hawk career against MSU three years ago where his first career catch ended up in a fumble going the other direction. Iowa lost 17-10 but Smith has turned into a helluva receiver. Spencer Petras will look to him to beat his man off the line and use his frame to box out defenders.

It’s particularly important for Iowa’s receivers to win matchups outside because MSU will very likely employ a similar strategy to what they did against Michigan to muck up the Wolverines’ run game. In the link, Nick Baumgardner of The Athletic had a couple lines which stuck out about MSU, considering they are being coached by Mel Tucker in his first year at East Lansing:

every time [Michigan] went with its bread and butter between the tackles, MSU made life very frustrating.

the Spartans simply refused to cede easy yards because they tackled well and had everything U-M does scouted about as well as anyone could have asked.

In their game against Michigan, starting corners Kalon Green and Shakur Brown made it tough for Wolverine wideouts, with two passes defended each. Their ability to defend outside without getting called for any penalties was important as Michigan found themselves throwing the ball over 50 times in a similarly unbalanced way to Iowa’s loss against Northwestern.

Adding urgency to Iowa’s need to win outside is Michigan State’s interior, who are capable of putting Spencer Petras in a mental pretzel if his first reads are not there.

Whether Iowa wins on Saturday hinges on a lot of things but the ability to “next man up” throughout Kirk Ferentz’s tenure has been a key component of his success. Should Iowa come out on top with success against Michigan State’s corners, it may force Mel Tucker to rethink their defensive focus and allow the Hawkeyes to run with more success.

If Iowa’s wideouts prove to be a non-factor, it will enable Sparty to key on the run and very likely send Kirk Ferentz to his first 0-3 record since 2000.