Saturday night will pit Michigan State and Iowa against each other for the prize of being the outright Big Ten Conference Champion. The Spartans enter the game with an 11-1 record with one loss coming from league opponent Nebraska. The Hawkeyes arrive in Indianapolis with a 12-0 slate. Iowa hasn't trailed in a game since playing Illinois on October 10.
There's not much reason to break down the statistics or style of play in this one. The numbers are identical and there's no mystery as to how this game will be played. It'll be a physical game that is played in the trenches on both sides. Neither gains an advantage from that. They'll both be competing in the type of game they're comfortable with. Because of that, it'll be an exceptional game, clean game, and should get the top performance from both the Spartans and Hawkeyes.
If there's an advantage the Spartans have, it'll be their ability to protect Connor Cook in the pocket and possibly their pass rush with elite athletes Lawrence Thomas, Demetrius Cooper, and Shilique Calhoun coming off the edge. Iowa's offensive tackles Boone Myers, Ike Boettger, and Cole Croston have played more than admirably this season. In many ways, they've overachieved. If there was one area to nit-pick, though, it would be their pass protection. It held up pretty well against Nebraska but not so much against Wisconsin.
For Iowa I think an advantage could be capitalizing on the aggressiveness and overpursuit of the Michigan State defense. The Spartans play without any fear on defense and that could leave to breakdowns if it is too aggressive or if they overpursue. The screen play has been kind to Iowa this season and so has the quarterback runs. Both could play a role if they want to catch the Spartans at the right time.
Defensively, the Hawkeyes are probably the best secondary Michigan State has seen all year but they're also good enough to take the run away. Aaron Burbridge is a big-play type wideout for the Spartans and the Receiver of the Year in the Big Ten, but Iowa was able to limit the explosiveness of Alex Erickson of Wisconsin, Jordan Westerkamp of Nebraska,Allen Lazard of Iowa State, Geronimo Allison of Illinois, and Tyler Boyd of Pittsburgh. Without any wideout breaking out against Iowa all season, they may have the upper hand if they can contain Burbridge the same way.
In tight games like this, special teams can be a factor. Both of the punting games are strong but there is a difference between the two kickers. Marshall Koehn has been much more consistent than Geiger, outside of his extra points. He's missed five of those but good in general. The Spartans have been a very inconsistent field goal unit but they have delivered when needed. They connected on a game winner against Ohio State, just as Iowa connected on a game winner to knock off Pittsburgh.
Scott Kennedy of Scout mentioned on the Scout Battleground video that Iowa and Michigan State are so much alike but that the Spartans are just a touch better at a lot of those things than Iowa, and I'd agree.
I think Iowa will surprise some folks and be able to run the ball. I can see LeShun Daniels and Jordan Canzeri having some success on the ground. However, I think they struggle to protect the quarterback. I don't think it will be poor play but I do think the offensive tackles could be overwhelmed some with the quick edge rushers of the Spartans. Michigan State being able to wreak havoc in the backfield will be a difference for them. Their offense will not be able to light up the scoreboard against Iowa but I think they can do just enough for the win.
The Hawkeyes play their game. They play clean and don't make any mistakes. I just think the trouble of protecting the quarterback and the fact that Michigan State should take care of the ball as well will be too much to overcome. It'll be a very narrow game and one the Spartans can win as long as they don't turn the ball over more than Iowa.
Michigan State 21
HAWK TO ROCK
On offense, I think Iowa maintains a consistently effective rushing attack. The Michigan State front will be tough to block in pass sets, especially obvious ones, but I think the Iowa line can pave holes in the running game as they have all year. I think this is the game for LeShun Daniels. He's a bit more physical, and a bit more of a bruiser than Canzeri and Wadley. It jives with the opponent a bit more in this case since the Spartans are a smashmouth, physical football team.
Defensively, I'll lean on the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year. Desmond King will have quite the matchup with Aaron Burbridge who was the Big Ten's top wideout. One of Kirk Ferentz's sayings this year is that their best players and their seniors have to play their best football in order for the team to find success. That means King, who isn't a senior but is one of their top performers. If he can take away Burbridge, it may be quite the challenge for the Spartans to find any kind of explosiveness on offense.