2-Minute Drill -- The Michigan State Spartans
So much of what ever team does every week is set up. Last week, the Hawkeye ran to the left 22 of 39 called handoffs to the running back. Whether the calls came from offensive coordinator Greg Davis in the press box or quarterback Jake Rudock caught Minnesota tipping its hand, it doesn't matter. Iowa ran that way, mostly outside zone, because it worked. Iowa averaged 5.9 yards a carry and took the air out of the ball in the second half.
Against Michigan State this week, Iowa will see a 4-3 over defense that will use its defensive tackles creatively and will probably shift them just before the snap, small but significant changes. Just like Iowa, the Spartans want to keep their linebackers -- Max Bullough (6-3, 245), Taiwan Jones (6-3, 250) and Denicos Allen (5-11, 218) -- clear of any offensive linemen. Given last week's left-sided Iowa offense, this probably slides a DT (Tyler Hoover or Micajah Reynolds) to an offensive tackle and thus changes the angle to the linebackers.
So, Iowa favored the left last week. It probably changes this week, but what likely won't change is Iowa's personnel groups. Expect to see fullback Adam Cox. His presence will give Iowa extra muscle getting through the line of scrimmage and will serve as a counter to MSU's counters.
You've heard of MSU's linebackers and most of its D-linemen, but redshirt freshman DE Shilique Calhoun (6-4, 250) is new. He leads the Spartans in QB hurries (8) and tackles for loss (4). In four games, Calhoun has scored three defensive TDs.
The cumulative effect will be in full force for Iowa's offense. Last season, running back Mark Weisman had 11 carries for 22 yards at halftime. He finished with 26 carries for 121 yards, including a 5-yard TD with 55 seconds left to send the game to OT. Iowa will pile up a lot of 2-yard carries with the idea those become 8-yarders in the second half.
The Spartans like cover 4, which allows their linebackers to be aggressive vs. the run and play downhill football.
Michigan State's defensive backs are engaged and important in everything the Spartans defense does. MSU plays a quarters coverage with safeties keying on the quarterback and, probably this week, Iowa's tight ends. MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's twist on quarters is a tight man-to-man coverage corners on outside receivers. Corners Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes lock up and throw away the key.
Dennard and Waynes will press Iowa's wide receivers to the point where they ask the officials if they're still onside. Will Iowa's receivers be able to match that and stay on route and on time? This is what Iowa did under Norm Parker, 4-3 and quarters coverage with little variance. The idea was a fast and physical defense and not one that's flat-footed and thinking. The moves the Spartans might try out of this depends how much they respect Iowa's pass offense. Narduzzi will probably want to challenge first-year starter Jake Rudock.
The Spartans ran into a glitch the last time out against Notre Dame, drawing four pass intereference penalties and a holding. MSU isn't backing off its techniques. The school sent video to Big Ten officials and it was assured the problem wasn't systemic. “We’re gonna play like we played,” Narduzzi told the Detroit Free Press last week. “And what people have to understand is we’re one of the top defenses in the country and have been, and we’ve got lockdown cornerbacks (Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes). They shouldn’t be surprised when we’re covering people and locking them down."
The Hawkeyes will have to force MSU out of its comfort zone or hold its own at the very least. Can Iowa tight ends create with their speed against Michigan State's linebackers? That group hasn't been a force in a game yet this season. Wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley has 26 receptions and no one else on Iowa's offense has cracked double digits. Perhaps the biggest question with Iowa's passing game this week is how much can WR Damond Powell's role grow? He averages 51.5 yards a catch. MSU is going to know when he's on the field and will adjust. In a game of grip-and-grunt, would Iowa dare to get creative with Powell, or will his growth in the offense take hold after the idle week next week?
Rudock has rightfully been praised for his poise, which will face its toughest test yet this week. One stat that quantifies that is third down. Rudock leads the Big Ten with a 59.2 percent completion rate (29 of 49) on third down, converting 20 of those passes for first downs.
Advantage: Michigan State
First, Le'Veon Bell and his 382 carries from last season are in the NFL playing for the Steelers. (Is Bell the most Steelers' running back since Jerome Bettis?) It stands to reason the production here hasn't been where it was in 2012, with no 100-yard rushers yet this season. So, who are the new guys? Jeremy Langford (6-0, 208) sort of forged ahead in a 1a-1b situation with Nick Hill (5-8, 190) with 68 yards against Notre Dame.
Langford turned heads in April 2012 with a 4.3-second 40-yard dash. He was switched to wide receiver after switching from running back to corner as a freshman because he saw a playing time opportunity. Make no mistake, he's a running back right now. "If he gets a crease, he can go the distance," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio told reporters at the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. "He needs to be a little firmer in between the tackles. But he's getting bigger and stronger as he grows."
MSU's O-line is growing into a heavyweight contender. The inside is solid with guards Blake Treadwell and Dan France and center Jack Allen. Redshirt freshman Jack Conklin (6-6, 326) has wedged his way into playing time at both tackle spots.
Iowa is playing physical rush defense. The Hawkeyes beat down their first test against a rush offense that wanted to be physical (holding Minnesota to 30 yards last week). They even held up against read-option QB Jordan Lynch, holding the fringe-ish Heisman candidate to 56 yards and 2.55 yards a carry. Odd stat check: MSU is 1-2 against Iowa since 2007 when it rushes for more than 100 yards.
One of the first thoughts that Kirk Ferentz and Greg Davis had after last season's 4-8 thud was the Hawkeyes needed -- absolutely had to have -- more explosive plays on offense. Iowa has 68 plays that have gone for 10-plus yards after producing just 138 last season. The reason for this factoid is for comparison with Michigan State. The Spartans are 109th in the nation with 47 10-plus plays. A lot of the struggle has been the identity at quarterback.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio conducted a four-man race during camp that he says now is settled, but still looks open. Sophomore Connor Cook is the guy, but against Notre Dame two weeks ago, he was pulled in favor of senior Andrew Maxwell in the final two minutes of a game in which MSU absolutely had to have a TD. Cook seemed genuinely disappointed. Dantonio has spent a lot of this week circling the verbal wagons around a QB who has a completed 11 of 27 passes on third down (40.7 percent).
MSU's receivers also have struggled. MLive.com gave this group an "F" for a quarter season grade and cited approximately an average of four dropped passes a game. Dantonio: “I think our players are very capable of being able to make those plays. Again, we’re going to find out as we continue to move through this season, but we’ve obviously got to score more points. I don’t think there is any question about that.” Can that just suddenly happen one week when there hasn't been any evidence of it against FBS competition this season?
Iowa's pass rush was more organic last week, with three of four sacks coming from D-linemen. By the way, that was a high for the Hawkeyes since five at Purdue in 2011.
Iowa has played less quarters coverage since the opener, when the Hawkeyes were burned for three long TD passes. Corners B.J. Lowery and true freshman Desmond King have played more man coverage. Last week, Minnesota found a vein of success with the post corner route, going over or inside on Lowery. Iowa has forced teams to the air in the first five weeks and that has scarred the secondary. "It's like the relief pitcher that gives up the home run, you can't pack it in, you have to take the ball the next day," Ferentz said.
MSU punter Mike Sadler has been busy. He averages 41.20 yards 25 punts, that's second to only Purdue in the Big Ten (but only two more than No. 3 Iowa). He has placed 48 percent of his punts (12 of 25) inside the 20 and 32 percent inside the 10 (8-of-25). Conversely, Iowa sophomore Connor Kornbrath has put 56 percent of his punts (13 of 23) inside the opponent's 20. He also has had just three punts returned. The punter is a weapon in this game. In the last six meetings, the schools have combined for 76 punts (12.6 a game).
Senior Kevin Muma missed two field goals in the 20- to 39-yard range and lost the job to freshman Michael Geiger, whose only two field goals came at Notre Dame, one being a 43-yarder into the wind. Iowa kicker Mike Meyer has made five of his last FGs and is 3-for-3 from 40-plus yards. Wide receiver Macgarret Kings seems to have settled in at punt return (10.5 ypr).
Can the Spartans make Iowa pay for shoddy kick coverage? RB Nick Hill is MSU's primary kick returner. He averages 19.0 yards a return. MSU is last in the Big Ten with 17.86 a return. Ferentz said during the week that Iowa's breakdowns that allowed returns of 66 and 53 yards at Minnesota were fixable.
1) The Bully Belt — Michigan State is frank in its action and intention. The Spartans defense has backed this up and then some for the last several years. There simply is no substitute for the confidence of an established and stellar record of excellence. MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi punctuated that last week with his comments about the penalties against his secondary at Notre Dame. 2) Simply turnovers — The two anomalies in the Ferentz-Dantonio/Iowa-Michigan State grunt fest were 2010 and 2011. In '10, the Hawkeyes won 37-6 on the strength of three turnovers. In '11, it was Michigan State 37-21 and Iowa with three turnovers. The turnover numbers this season favor . . . oh, look at that, both teams sit at plus-3. 3) Home field, home schmield — This series has become so vacuum-packed that there really no advantage to anything really. In the last six meetings, the home team is 3-3.
It keeps doing what it's doing on third down. The Hawkeyes are No. 13 in the nation converting 52.50 percent on third down (42 of 80). Last season, Iowa was 36.36 on third down with just 64 conversions all season. On defense, Iowa is No. 7 in the nation, allowing just a 25.35 conversion percentage.
The Spartans can keep Rudock from finding a comfort level, keep him guessing and just generally see if he has any flinch in him. Iowa's sophomore QB has yet to be marauded. The Spartans have that gear. In 2011, this defense produced 45 sacks. Five members from this year's defense picked up sacks that season.
PREDICTION: Iowa 16, Michigan State 14