5 Things: Iowa football vs. Michigan State

Hawkeyes go to Spartan Stadium for the first road game of the Big Ten Conference season

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The sun rose on Sunday. And Monday. Hopefully by now Hawkeye fans aren’t as bitter about Saturday night’s loss to Penn State, especially considering Iowa was a play away from beating another top-five team. Heading on the road to play a team that’s in a precarious position provides a situation that could be far worse following a close loss.

It’s been almost two years since the Hawkeyes faced the Spartans, so let’s look at 5 Things: Iowa vs. Michigan State.

1. Since then

There are a few games in the Kirk Ferentz era at Iowa that cannot be topped in terms of the electricity and intensity felt among the Hawkeyes fan base. The Big Ten Championship game on Dec. 5, 2015 was, without a doubt, one of those days.

As anyone who watched that game knows, it was, in every sense of the word, a quintessential Big Ten football game. The final drive from the Spartans, finished off by running back LJ Scott at the goal line, was the quintessential drive. Despite that loss, what’s happened for both schools since is just about the opposite of that outcome.

Yes, Iowa lost in the Rose Bowl in emphatic fashion. But last season’s 8-5 record got the Hawkeyes to 20 wins in two seasons, and it’s been followed up by a 3-1 start to this season in which a sophomore quarterback starting for the first time has 12 touchdowns in four games — the most by an Iowa quarterback in his first four starts. The Hawkeyes had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers, beat then-No. 2 Michigan and had several All-Americans.

Michigan State went to the College Football Playoff to play No. 1 Alabama after that night in Indy, and got demolished, 38-0. A 12-2 record in 2015 — which followed up 13-1 in 2013 (Rose Bowl win) and 11-2 in 2014 (Cotton Bowl win) — gave way to an almost unrecognizable Spartans team last season. Michigan State went 3-9, including losses in nine of its last 10 games. Other than the Spartans’ one-point loss to Ohio State late in the season, they weren’t competitive in Big Ten play.

Even more unsettling were the off-the-field issues under longtime head coach Mark Dantonio. Eleven scholarship players left the team following the 2016 season due to various issues. The most serious departures came from a criminal sexual conduct charge in June. Defensive end Josh King was charged after a woman said three players sexually assaulted her at a party in January. Receiver Donnie Corley and defensive back Demetric Vance were kicked off the team with King over the charges. Defensive end Auston Robertson was charged in a separate alleged sexual assault and also was kicked off the team.

Just remember, when you’re mad about the protection Nate Stanley is getting or whether or not the defense is tackling well enough, there are far bigger things that could be wrong. The two programs converge Saturday at very different points.

2. Nail-biters

Iowa and Michigan State have played 14 times in the Kirk Ferentz era, and the split is 7-7 in those games. Of those 14 games, including the 2015 Big Ten title game, five of the Hawkeyes-Spartans matchups have been decided by three points or less.

The Spartans won that title game, 16-13, won by the same exact score at Spartan Stadium in 2008 and beat the Hawkeyes, 31-28 in East Lansing in 2001. Iowa, on the flip side, got two of the more exciting wins of the series — and one of the most exciting wins of the Ferentz era, period. The Hawkeyes won 19-16 in overtime in 2012 (OK, that win in that season being exciting is a bit of a stretch), which came three years after some game in 2009 that Iowa won, 15-13.

Ask Iowa fans where they were on Oct. 24, 2009 and they’ll probably have a story for you. Ricky Stanzi’s game-winning touchdown throw to Marvin McNutt kept Iowa undefeated and eventually helped the Hawkeyes to an Orange Bowl berth (and win). Combine that finish with the 2015 Big Ten title game and Iowa fans aged decades in roughly five minutes of football between the two teams.

3. It all comes back to Saban

Everything in movies comes back to Kevin Bacon. Nick Saban is college football’s Kevin Bacon — if only because you could probably do a “seven degrees of Saban” and you could connect most of college football back to him somehow.

How does that apply to Saturday’s Iowa-Michigan State game?

Well, Saban was of course the Spartans’ head coach from 1995-99. His Michigan State team destroyed Iowa in Kirk Ferentz’s first season as head coach, 49-3, at Spartan Stadium. Saban’s defensive backs coach in that game (and from 1995-2000 in total)? Mark Dantonio. The current Spartans head coach left a year after Saban before returning to lead the program in 2007.

Ferentz didn’t just coach against Saban, though. Saban connects to Ferentz by way of Cleveland and Bill Belichick. From 1993-95, Ferentz was the offensive line coach for the Browns under Belichick, while Saban was on the other side of the ball as the defensive coordinator.

4. Road openers

Iowa heads to East Lansing, Mich., for its first road conference game of the season — something that started out as a headache but has developed into something solid.

Under Ferentz, the Hawkeyes are 9-9 in their first road Big Ten games of the season. At first, those first conference road games were almost assuredly a loss. Iowa lost six of its first seven years in the first Big Ten roadie and eight of the first 10 — with wins at Penn State in 2002 and at Illinois in 2006 the exceptions.

Since then, though, it’s flipped completely. Since 2009, the Hawkeyes have only lost their Big Ten road opener once — 13-3 to Penn State in 2011 — and have won five straight road openers. Last season Iowa beat Rutgers, 14-7, in its first road conference game.

Coincidentally, Iowa has opened its road slate against Michigan State more than any other conference foe under Ferentz. Saturday marks the fifth time that’s happened.

5. Against the spread

Depending where you look, Iowa opened up as either a 2-point or 3-point underdog for Saturday, and settled at Michigan State by 3.5 as of Monday afternoon. That marks the 12th Big Ten road opener under Ferentz in which the Hawkeyes go in the underdog. Iowa is 8-4 against the spread as an underdog in those games.

Similar to winning those conference road openers outright, the Hawkeyes turned the tide in terms of covering the spread overall in these games in the last 10 years. Iowa is 8-2 against the spread in the last 10 Big Ten road openers, failing to cover last year at Rutgers and in 2011 at Penn State.

Given the home team almost always gets at least three points for being at home, Las Vegas essentially looks at Saturday’s Iowa-Michigan State game as a coin flip. Also given how poorly Michigan State played against Notre Dame and how well Iowa played against Penn State — and the respective morale and mentality on both teams — betting very well could go in Iowa’s direction as the week goes on.

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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