Perfection is something fun to reflect on. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we got here and how this team has accomplished so much more than last year’s without being that much different. The whole New Kirk thing has probably been overblown. The difference is quarterback play isn’t as dramatic as people were expecting. The schedule wasn’t a killer, but wasn’t really any easier than last year. So what was it?
The Run Game
Well for starters, the run game came back to life with an injection of talent at running back. The offensive line this year has played very well. The interior line has been incredible. The way Brian Ferentz has shaped the rushing attack as the Run Game Coordinator has been great. But this really boils down to not having a fullback carrying the load [insert but we still respect Mark Weisman comment here]. Jordan Canzeri has had a heck of a senior season. He overcame what looked like a devastating ankle injury and will likely go over 1,000 yards on the season tomorrow (he needs just 36 more). Akrum Wadley got his chance against Northwestern when Canzeri went down and has been Iowa’s top big play threat. He is deadly when he gets to the outside in open space. He has 7 TDs on just 69 carries. And LeShun Daniels has overcome his own set on injuries and has looked really good at times. He had a great game against Minnesota and has 8 TDs of his own.
Iowa needs to keep up its strong rushing attack against Michigan State on Saturday. The Spartan’s rush defense has been very good this year. They held Ohio State to just 86 yards on the ground. The MSU front 7 is very good. The defensive line is anchored by Shilique Calhoun, who is a legit threat. They’ve got a solid and aggressive linebacker corps. However, they are very similar statistically to Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska, teams that Iowa had success running against. And Iowa has shown the ability to find running lanes even with teams stacking the box.
WIth the game inside on turf and with MSU’s stout defensive front, look for Iowa to attack the edges of the defense. Canzeri will likely get the load and he showed just last week that he can take it to the house when he gets to the outside. I’d expect Wadley to be back after not playing last week and for Greg Davis to use him similarly to how he was used against Purdue. Iowa ran pitch plays and some counter type plays to try to get him loose. They might be able to get something there against MSU’s aggressive D.
The other thing Iowa’s running backs have done all season is break a big touchdown run at critical parts of the game. Against Iowa State it was a pair of runs by Canzeri following Desmond King’s interception in the 4th quarter that put the game away. Against Illinois, when the Illini had just pulled to within 3 points, Canzeri broke a 75-yard TD run on the first play of the next drive. Against Minnesota, LeShun Daniels broke free late in the 4th quarter for 51 yards to put Iowa up two scores. The next week, against Purdue, Canzeri did the same thing scoring at the end of the game on a long run when Iowa was mostly trying to run out the clock. And finally, against Nebraska, Jordan Canzeri had back-to-back long TD runs. The second came after a Husker score that put them within 4 in the third quarter.
So which Iowa running back will provide that big spark when the momentum feels like it is shifting the Spartan’s way?
The other position group that is playing significantly better this year is linebacker. It was just bad last year. They were consistently beat by speedy running backs. They were a step slow in coverage. They were just plain bad at defending the edge. But this year has been so much better.
Josey Jewell has found a home at middle linebacker and has been terrific. I expect him to have a very good game against MSU’s rush attack. The Spartans like to run the ball, but are 12th in the B1G in yards per carry. Like Iowa though, they’ve had some injuries on the offensive line that has kept their numbers down. Also like Iowa, they use a lot of different running backs. But I think Jewell will be up for the task.
Cole Fisher has been a good story this year as well. He has emerged as the team’s second leading tackler. He is also going to be a key cog in Iowa’s rush defense. He’s also been decent at blitzing and depending on Nate Meier’s health, Iowa may need to throw a little more at Connor Cook tomorrow to try to get some semblance of a pass rush. Fisher has gotten home for 2.5 sacks this year and has 3 QB hurries.
The OLB spot is the one to watch tomorrow. Ben Niemann got taken out by some friendly fire against Nebraska and Bo Bower slid right in. Bower started all 13 games last year, so he is no slouch, though Niemann has been an upgrade this year. Whoever plays is also going to have to play a big role in run support and I expect that player to blitz off the edge a couple of times. Iowa’s OLB spot also has a big role in the pass defense. Bower has played a lot in the Raider package this year and has dropped back in coverage a lot. I think either play will do fine here.
Iowa had a fumble problem last year. They fumbled it 21 times and lost 15 of them. They were extremely unlucky in their recovery rate. This year has been much better. Iowa’s only fumbled about once per game and only lost 8. They’ve also recovered several more of their opponents’ fumbles. Last year they only recovered 3 of 11 opponent fumbles…this year they're recovered 8 of 14. The ball is bouncing Iowa’s way a little bit more often.
C.J. Beathard has also been fantastic keeping the ball out of defenders’ hands. He has only thrown 3 interceptions all year. Last year Jake Rudock also took care of the ball really well, but he and C.J. combined for 7 picks. On the other side of the ball, Desmond King has been an interception machine. He has 8 on his own and the defense as a whole has 17. Both of those totals lead the B1G.
What all this has led to is a +14 turnover margin this year for Iowa and a 83-40 advantage in points off of turnovers. That has been a huge, huge difference from last year, when Iowa lost the points off of turnovers battle 35-58. That’s essentially the extra few points per game Iowa is averaging on offense this year.
Michigan State, though, also has a +14 turnover margin this year. Like Beathard, Cook does a phenomenal job protecting the ball. He’s only thrown 4 picks. Additionally, they’ve only lost 6 fumbles, while recovering 11. And MSU’s points off of turnovers is even more lopsided than Iowa’s at 105-17.
So if Iowa can force a turnover on Michigan State tomorrow it’ll be a big deal and the offense will need to capitalize on the opportunity. Those would be some rare points against MSU. Cook will throw up some 50/50 balls as he trusts he receivers (which he should….they are very good, especially Aaron Burbridge). After coming so, so close the past couple weeks, it would be an amazing time for King to break the interception record.
While I think Iowa will do okay in the run game, I’d expect Beathard to have to throw as much as he did against Pitt for Iowa to keep the ball moving in this game. He’s been making good decisions all year and I don’t expect that to change. He has been a little fumble prone, though. But if Beathard plays turnover-free for 60 minutes, I think Iowa will have a great shot at winning tomorrow.
The Hidden Yards
The move to put Desmond King as a returner has proved to be a great decision. Iowa’s return game last year was shaky. They got absolutely nothing out of their punt returns. Matt VandeBerg had one nice return all year, but on the whole the Hawks averaged just 5 yards a return. King has averaged over 13 yards per return. Similarly, last year Iowa only averaged 20 yards per return on kickoffs, while King is averaging over 25 yards per return this year. So right there, Iowa’s offense has 5-10 fewer yards per drive to travel. More importantly, though, is King’s knack for having a big return at the most critical points in a game. He had a big 34-yard punt return against ISU that set up Iowa’s winning TD. He had a decent kick return against Pitt before Marshall Koehn’s game winner. Near the end of the 3rd quarter against Minnesota, after the Gophers had cut Iowa's lead to 6, King returned the ensuing kickoff 58 yards and Iowa scored a couple of plays later. And even last week, King had a punt return that went for 26 yards and also had a late hit penalty that gave Iowa the ball deep inside Nebraska’s territory. King hasn’t had a kick or punt return for a TD yet, though…that’d be nice tomorrow.
Iowa has also improved its punting game as well. Dillon Kidd has improved his average by over 2 yards per kick and has done a better job getting punts to drop down inside the 20. Last year only about a quarter of his punts were downed inside the 20, while this year it is close to 40%. Marshall Koehn has also been solid as the rugby-style punter. Every week I think he’s going to run it and every week he punts it. That fake is there. Kirk Ferentz is going to call it. I don’t know when. It might not be this year. But sometime soon. Anyway, Iowa has also greatly improved in punt coverage (thanks spread punt!) taking the yards per return down from 15.1 to 9.8.
Michigan State has a good punter, but they haven’t been that great in coverage or returns. They only average 2.8 yards per punt return and 21.2 yards per kick return. Their coverage teams have given up a kick and a punt return for touchdowns. King could have a chance to make a play.
Iowa keeps doing what it has been doing. I think running the ball will be a struggle, but Canzeri will break a couple that help Iowa move the chains and put together enough scoring drives. Beathard will be asked to do a lot with his arm, but without the cold and wind holding him back, he has a very good day. On the other side of the ball, Michigan State chooses to pound it and Iowa will let them between the 20s. But having to grind out long drives will lead to a mistake by Cook and Iowa will capitalize. And that will ultimately be the difference in a very close and relatively high scoring B1G Championship Game.
Final Score: Iowa 31 - Michigan State 27
BONUS! Make your own prediction, courtesy the the folks at The Crowd's Line