Iowa’s football season is not getting off to the start most fans and experts expected it would. While many Hawkeyes were cautiously optimistic that Iowa could be competitive in the Big Ten West race, an 0-2 start complete with two blown second half leads has cast serious doubt on whether Iowa can even reach a .500 record this year. It’s too early to say whether Iowa’s struggles have to do with the offseason distractions, a lack of talent, or both, but regardless of the cause, the Hawkeyes must fix the problem soon to avoid the season spiraling out of control.
Iowa’s game againstMichigan State was supposed to provide the Hawks with just such an opportunity. The Spartans were widely projected to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten East division after years of attrition and the departure of longtime head coach Mark Dantonio, and their opening game loss to Rutgers seemingly confirmed these predictions. However, after Michigan State’s stunning road upset over Michigan in a game where the Wolverines were favored by 24 points, the chances of Sparty rolling over against the Hawkeyes appear much slimmer. Michigan State is far from a complete team, but if the Hawkeyes want to win their first game on Saturday, they’re going to have to earn it.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in this week’s game:
1. Can Spencer Petras develop consistency in the passing game?
Spencer Petras was a huge source of offseason optimism for many Iowa fans, but has quickly become one of the Hawkeyes’ biggest question marks on offense. Petras has an abysmal passer rating of 96.3 through two games, has completed only 53.9% of his passes, and has connected on only one passing touchdown against three interceptions. The sophomore quarterback has been hampered by inconsistency; one moment he is making NFL throws, the next he is staring down receivers, misreading the defensive coverage, or missing an opportunity to target a wide open player for a big gain as he did with Nico Ragaini in the second half against Northwestern.
Petras has more than enough arm talent to be a successful Big Ten quarterback, but part of the problem with his performance has been an overreliance on his big arm. Not only has Petras shown a tendency to force the ball into overly tight windows when he wrongly believes he can complete the pass, but his inability to throw touch passes has turned several potential catches into incompletions or interceptions when the ball is thrown high and at full speed and ricochets off his target’s outstretched fingers. Fans can blame this on nerves, youth, or a lack of rapport with his receivers, but the problem must be addressed no matter the cause.
Petras does seem to be on a different page with his pass-catchers at times, however. Several times during the Northwestern game, Hawkeye receivers seemed to post up in holes in zone coverage when Petras expected them to continue their routes, or vice versa. This connection is not usually something that can be rushed and must be formed over time, but Iowa’s coaches must urgently find a way to improve it before Saturday’s contest.
Iowa’s game against Michigan State will provide a real test for the Hawkeye passing attack, particularly with star receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette suspended. The Spartans have a solid secondary led by safety Xavier Henderson and have held opposing quarterbacks to a 111.94 passer rating over two games, a top twenty figure in the nation. Hawkeye fans have heard for months about the talent of their receiving corps, and it may be up to this gifted group to further elevate their play against the Spartans to make things easier for Petras. Finally, look for Iowa’s coaches to find a healthier balance between the run and pass in this contest, as Petras hardly has the experience or the chops worthy of the 51 passes he attempted last week.
2. Which team can run the ball most effectively?
If Iowa hopes to achieve greater offensive balance, they must run the ball more effectively. Iowa’s running back talent is considerable, but the Hawkeye ground game stalled out in a major way against Northwestern, only averaging 3.3 yards per carry in the contest. Considering that Michigan State has held opponents to 3.44 yards per carry this season, the Spartans won’t make things easier for the Hawkeyes in this realm. Whether Iowa’s run game produces results more similar to the Purdue game (minus the fumbles, of course) or looks more like it did against Northwestern will determine whether the Hawkeyes can control the clock and move the ball without relying too heavily on a young, inexperienced quarterback.
As inconsistent as Iowa has looked on the ground, however, Michigan State’s problems in this area appear to be far worse. The Spartans have struggled mightily to run the ball this year, averaging the third worst yards per carry and fifth worst yards-per-game averages in the country. Michigan State is certainly committed to running the ball as evidenced by their 38 attempts on the ground against Michigan, but aside from a single 28 yard carry by Jordon Simmons, they seemed positively lost on how to do so effectively.
With both teams hoping to win the game by controlling the ball and the clock, it would not be surprising to see the winner of this contest be the team with the most consistent production from its running game. Iowa has shown some real vulnerability against the run at times, but is surprisingly only allowing 2.84 yards per carry, the best in the conference. Will the Hawkeyes prove that the stout run defense they showed in the second half against Northwestern was the exception rather than the rule? And if so, can Iowa prevent Michigan State from similarly shutting down their ground attack?
3. Can Iowa defend against the deep ball?
Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi is not a particularly accurate QB (as evidence by his 49.2% career completion rate), but his coaches are more than willing to let him attack downfield, something which he often did successfully against Michigan. Michigan State runs the ball often enough that Iowa’s defenders cannot totally sell out to stop the pass, and the Spartans will hope to suck the Hawkeye defenders into the box in hopes of getting one-on-one matchups downfield that they can exploit. Freshman Ricky White (8 catches for 196 yards and a touchdown vs. Michigan) is MSU’s most dangerous deep threat, but Jalen Nailor and Western Michigan transfer Jayden Reed are also capable of making plays.
The Hawkeye pass defense looked worlds better against Northwestern than it did against Purdue, but Iowa will also be forced to contend with opposing receivers this weekend who look much more like the Boilermakers’ pass catchers than the Wildcat’s. Iowa’s secondary cannot allow Ricky White to beat them downfield or consistently draw pass interference penalties the way Purdue’s David Bell has in prior matchups, nor can they allow Nailor and Reed to do the kind of incremental damage underneath that Purdue’s Milton Wright did against them two weeks ago. Lombardi, an Iowa native, will likely play with a chip on his shoulder in this game, and may be inclined to press things downfield in hopes of showing out against his home-state team. If Iowa can capitalize on MSU’s willingness to attack deep in the passing game and Lombardi’s accuracy concerns, they can hopefully generate turnovers and prevent the Spartans from putting long drives together. If the Spartans manage to connect on a few of these plays however, it could be a frustrating day for the Hawkeye defense.