4-0 Start Nice, But Now <i>Real</i> Season Begins

The Hawkeyes have finished the non-conference portion of their schedule unblemished for the first time since 1997. A few of you predicted a perfect start to the season. Myself, I would have been pleased with merely a 3-1 beginning. But 4-0 sounds really nice and sets the Hawks in the right direction for their conference opener Saturday against the Michigan State Spartans in the most beautiful city in Ingham County, East Lansing.

Michigan State was a program in complete disarray last year going 4-8 and getting its head coach Bobby Williams fired in the process. The ringleader to this circus was quarterback Jeff Smoker, who missed a large part of the season due to a substance-abuse suspension. His status with the team was still uncertain through much of the summer until new head coach, John L. Smith, eventually named Smoker the starting quarterback early in fall camp.

Smith came to MSU from Louisville, where he loved to throw the ball and had terrific quarterbacks in Chris Redman and Dave Ragone to help him do that. Smith promised that he would throw the ball at MSU, too, and his passing attack currently ranks fourth in in the Big Ten in passing yards but just seventh in scoring offense.

Smoker, at times, looks like he could be the most talented quarterback in the Big Ten, but then, at times, looks lost. Last year Smoker was smoked out by a relentless pass rush from Iowa that spelled doom for the Spartans offense. The MSU game was Matt Roth's coming out party. Roth made Smoker his personal tackling dummy, eventually knocking him out with a solid hit in the second half.

Smoker is fourth in the Big Ten averaging 233 passing yards per game. He has completed 59.8 percent of his passes while attempting the fourth most passes of any quarterback in the league. Throwing a lot of passes will lead to turnovers and Smoker has thrown five interceptions to six touchdowns in four games. He is similar to Andrew Walter of Arizona State in that he is a pocket passer. He is a good thrower on the run, but would much prefer to drop back and sling it. His lack of scrambling ability has led to seven sacks in four games, which was aided by not getting sacked once in their last contest against Notre Dame. Smoker has not seen a rush like he will see this week.

Smoker's primary target has been Agim Shabaj, who has 20 receptions for 314 yards a cool 15.7 yards per reception average. Shabaj has three touchdowns, two of which came in the season opener against Western Michigan. The second leading receiver for Michigan State is running back Jaren Hayes, also the Spartans' leading rusher. Hayes has the football in his hands a lot for the Spartans. Hayes averages 87.5 rushing yards per game and 5 yards per carry. His best game came last week against Notre Dame has Hayes carried 19 times for 109 yards, 71 coming on a long touchdown run.

As you would expect from a passing team, Michigan State is just eighth in the league in rushing at 145.2 yards per game despite facing an average MAC team in Western Michigan, a very pathetic Rutgers team and an average defensive Louisiana Tech team who handed MSU its only defeat in four contests. The poor rushing attack is the sole reason the Spartans don't average more points despite throwing the ball around the field.

The Spartans have scored just two rushing touchdowns, which makes an opposing defense better in the red zone. Michigan State is dead last in the Big Ten in red zone offense with just two touchdowns in 13 red zone chances. That will be compounded this week, as Iowa is No. 1 in the conference in red zone defense having allowed just two touchdowns in only seven opportunities. I like Iowa's odds here.

The Spartans will need to outscore teams to win games this year because they are not extremely strong on the defensive side of the ball. Michigan State is allowing 27.8 points per game including 28 to Rutgers. Teams have thrown at will on the Spartans, as they have allowed over 309 yards per game thru the air, including 436 by Louisiana Tech. The Spartans have been opportunistic, picking off nine passes while allowing eight touchdowns.

The main reason the passing yards have come in droves is because the Spartans have been stout against the run. The Spartans are allowing just 41.4 yards per game on the ground and just 1.4 yards per carry. Very impressive numbers indeed, but the teams MSU has faced all like to throw the ball and Notre Dame is anemic on offense, so those rush numbers are a little out of whack. This is the same defense, one year removed, that gave up what seemed like 1,000 yards in one game to Penn State's Larry Johnson last year, so I would expect MSU to fall off in that category before the year is over.

One area of concern for Iowa will be protecting Nathan Chandler because Michigan State has 17 sacks for 120 yards in loss, which leads the league. Leading the defense is linebacker Mike Labinjo with 30 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions. Defensive tackle Matthias Askew leads the Big Ten with five sacks and is second is tackles for loss with six. Greg Taplin has six sacks for MSU to go with Askew. Iowa has to make it an issue to keep Askew bottled up and not let him run free.

The leading tacklers in the league are Iowa's Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge with 51 and 42 tackles respectively, and Iowa's Roth is tied for the lead with six tackles for loss.

Michigan State and Iowa are very close in several key statistical categories. Michigan State is No. 1 in net punting and Iowa is No. 3. Iowa and Michigan State are Nos. 1 and 2 in turnover margin at +6 and +4. Turnovers are very much a determining factor in who wins and who doesn't.

Iowa is tops in kickoff returns and in punt returns, while Michigan State is third in kickoff returns but seventh in punt returns.

Iowa wins this game and extends its 13-game regular season winning streak. Iowa wins because its defense has proven to be far superior to any offense it has faced, including the one-dimensional offensive attack of Michigan State. You can't just throw and beat Iowa, and Michigan State doesn't run it well enough to keep Iowa's defense honest. Iowa has been throwing the ball with just enough efficiency to open up the running game and keep the opposing defense on its toes. Iowa's running game got stronger as the game went on against Arizona State, and I see Iowa wearing down the Spartan defense. Iowa also wins because its special teams are arguably the best in the nation. That includes the kick coverage and return teams, punt coverage and return teams to the kicker and punter themselves, who have been solid in giving Iowa the edge in the field position game in each contest.

Iowa's defense will take it upon itself to see that Smoker does not get comfortable and make it difficult on the Spartan signal caller. Final score: Iowa 27, Michigan State 14.

Arizona State Rewind

Iowa's Fred Russell was quoted after the game as saying that he felt sorry for offenses that have to face Iowa's defense. We concurr.

Enough can't be said about Iowa's defense. Nothing fancy -- just four linemen, three linebacker, two corners and two safeties playing the parts with incredible efficiency and desire.

The front four got tremendous pressure on ASU quarterback Andrew Walter, not letting him settle in completing no pass for more than 15 yards. This is a guy who threw for nearly 4,000 yards last year in just five starts. The front four also stuffed the run to a tune of 15 total rushing yards.

The linebackers control the middle of the field. Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge run down absolutely everything and hit with a reckless abandon. Iowa now has a defense that can run step for step with a Pac-10 team. Grant Steen usually defends the tight end or back out of the backfield and has been terrific at that as well as defending the run.

The secondary has benefited by the relentless pressure the front four applies by playing tight coverage on the ASU receivers. No pass over 15 yards while having 44 passes thrown is just phenomenal. Jovon Johnson had perhaps the biggest play of the game when he intercepted a Walter pass at the goal line, which would have given ASU 9-point lead. Johnson and fellow corner Antwan Allen had several deflected passes without a single pass interference call all night. No gimmicks from this defense no blitzes, no five or six defensive backs.

The first quarter of the game against Arizona State was not a thing of beauty on the offensive side of the ball. Nathan Chandler was very erratic with his passes, throwing an interception on a very poorly thrown crossing route. Just when things looked really bad, Chandler hooked up with Ramon Ochoa on a beautiful 40 yards touchdown pass that gave Iowa a lead they never relinquished. Plays like that from Chandler proves he has the ability to play at this level, he just needs to get more consistent. One area is his decision-making; on a couple of occasions in attempts to throw the ball away he was nearly picked off in crucial moments of the game. Chandler needs to be less nonchalant with the ball. A sack is better than a pick anytime.

What was good was the contribution Iowa got from a new group of receivers. Ochoa had two touchdowns on the night, and is a terrific route runner. Calvin Davis got the most playing time of this career and had three catches. One catch he didn't get cost Iowa a touchdown as he dropped a perfectly thrown pass from Chandler. I'm confident Davis will use that drop as a learning guide in future games. True freshman James Townsend saw his first action and got an important grab on a third down late in the game. Another true freshman Eric McCollom, who came in as a quarterback, saw action at wide receiver and likely will see more this week as Ed Hinkel went down with a muscle pull. McCollom wasn't likely to see the field as a quarterback this year, and if you can help the team win, what the hell.

Fred Russell got a majority of his yards in the second half when Iowa began flexing its muscles and finished with a solid 154 yards. It was a great win over a good opponent and it certainly answered a lot of questions I had about this 2003 Iowa football team.

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