It’s no secret, the Iowa Hawkeyes looked like a heaping pile of garbage in their week four meltdown in Happy Valley. Now the Hawkeyes return to Iowa City for their Big Ten home opener as they play host to the Michigan State Spartans.
It’s been three years and now two coaches since the Hawkeyes have faced the Spartans so it’s safe to say some things have changed about this team since we last saw them.
In the words of the wise and sage-like Big Tom Callahan, you can get a good look at a t-bone by sticking your head up a bull’s rear end, but wouldn’t you rather take the butcher’s word for it?
So rather than sticking our head up anyone’s rear end, we’re asking our friends over at The Only Colors for their words on the Michigan State Spartans. We were joined by Oren Basse and Brandon Blackburn-Dwyer over at the OC to talk all things MSU this week. Here’s a look at our conversation.
BHGP: It’s been three years since the Hawkeyes and Spartans have faced off and for as much as things stay the same in Iowa City, there’s been some changes in East Lansing. Philosophically, what should Hawkeye fans know about the team Mel Tucker put together and Harlon Barnett is coaching this Saturday?
OC: As Spartan fans, we have grown accustomed to not knowing what to expect from our football team from one year to the next. And we obviously did not foresee what has transpired so far this year. The transition from Mel Tucker to the leadership of Acting Head Coach Harlon Barnett has been mostly a continuation of a theme. Tucker’s fingerprints are still on this team as the entire staff is essentially the same. Barnett’s head coaching impact so far seems to be a bit more of an aggressive approach. The game decisions last week featured a lot of “go for it” on 4th down type decisions as well as the return of the QB sneak in short yardage situations - an approach that had inexplicably disappeared. Since the two main play calling coordinators are the same, the rest is mostly the same. Offensive Coordinator Jay Johnson is a play caller with an offense still searching for an identity, while defensive Coordinator Scottie Hazelton may finally have found something positive last week while using the secondary to blitz - finally getting pressure on a QB. ”Philosophically”, I think most Spartan players know that our team isn’t great, but there is no quit in this team and they will take your shots for 60 minutes.
BHGP: On the offensive side of the ball, the Spartans, like the Hawkeyes, have had some struggles this season averaging just 23 points per game. But unlike Iowa, Michigan State has had little problem moving the ball at 377 yards per game. Perhaps most notably, the Spartans have four receivers and five total players with more than 100 yards receiving on the year. How do you expect QB Noah Kim and the MSU offense to attack this Iowa defense?
OC: Averages can be very deceiving. MSU has put up 406, 465, 261, and 376 yards in our 4 games. So it may be safe to say that the biggest determinant of how we move the ball is how good our opponent is. Iowa, obviously has a good defense so I would take the under on total yards if I were a betting man, especially if MSU continues to have a problem with turnovers. Each of the last two games have seen Noah Kim not play through the end of the game. The lone bright spot on this offense has been transfer running back Nathan Carter and I think MSU has to continue to rely on him to be the biggest weapon and hope he can find holes in the Iowa DL. Obviously, this means our offensive line has to hold up, but they have been inconsistent at best.
BHGP: Sticking with the offense, the Spartans are averaging 111 yards per game on the ground. While Iowa fans may be most familiar with former Wisconsin RB Jalen Berger, it’s been sophomore Nathan Carter leading the way at more than 5 yards per carry. How have Carter and the Spartans been successful in the ground game and what should we expect to see Saturday night?
OC: Let’s give credit where credit is due. Nathan Carter is a good running back. He isn’t the level of what MSU got to enjoy 2 years ago with Kenneth Walker, but he is above average in my opinion. It’s not like he is getting much help from the passing game so defenses would be wise to make him the priority. If Iowa can rely on man coverage on the Spartans’ receivers and then stack the box with 6 or 7, they should be able to stop MSU’s greatest threat. But as I said before, this team won’t quit so I would not expect MSU to abandon the run game unless they find themselves down multiple scores late in the game.
BHGP: On the other side of the ball, Iowa fans likely recall the defenses of old under former head coach Mark Dantonio. How has the defensive philosophy changed since the last meeting between these two in 2020 and who are the names Iowa fans should keep an eye out for this week?
OC: The best level of MSU’s defense are the linebackers with Cal Haladay and Jacoby Windmon likely being the two best defenders on the team. However, Windmon missed the last game with an injury and we have not heard any news yet for this coming weekend. If you were to ask the regular commenters on The Only Colors, you would probably hear things like “we like to leave receivers wide open” and “we don’t like to pressure the quarterback”. That is to say that this year’s defense, and really for most of Tucker’s time in East Lansing, has not gained many fans. The skill is there, especially if you go by recruiting rankings, but the players are not getting coached up like they were during the Dantonio years; we aren’t seeing players improve during their time as Spartans. If you wanted to, you could attack this defense vertically and probably be happy with the results.
BHGP: OK, prediction time. Our friends over at DraftKings Sportsbook have this one at Iowa -11.5, which seems quite laughable to most Hawkeye fans given the performance we saw in week four. The over/under seems more reasonable down at 36 total points. How do you see this one playing out and what’s your final score prediction?
OC: Well, I am a die-hard Spartan so I will bet with my heart and not my head (which is why I don’t gamble much). Yeah, low scoring game seems appropriate. MSU wins 13-10.
Hooray for more games featuring almost no scoring!
Thanks again to Oren and Brandon for taking the time to chat Hawkeyes-Spartans with us this week. Be sure to stop over to The Only Colors before we get to gameday and see their other coverage of the matchup, including a Q&A with yours truly.