1. Pick on the MSU corners – The MSU corners must be like the unlucky Iowa OL over the last few years. Senior Demario Suggs and redshirt freshman Jason Harmon both broke an ankle during practice last week. Both are likely to miss 8-10 weeks. Harmon had replaced Cedric Henry, a returning starter, who was declared academically ineligible before the season.
If the same thing had happened to the Iowa corners, MSU would go right after their replacements, and that is what Iowa needs to do to MSU. The Spartans play a lot of bump-and-run coverage that leaves the corners out on an island. In turn, the front seven of the Spartan Defense and the safeties are at times freed up to stuff the running game of other teams. If MSU plays defense the way that they normally do, the passing game needs to get the ball to Kahlil Hill and C.J. Jones. If safeties are cheating over to help the corners, Dallas Clark and other options of the passing game should open up. If the Spartans play a majority of zone and help their secondary with more help from linebackers, the Iowa running game MUST step up and take advantage.
Whoever plays corner for MSU will be inexperienced. Iowa must read how MSU covers up for this and take advantage.
2. Run the Ball! – Don't try and run the ball, but actually gain 4.0 yards a carry this week. MSU has to adjust this week due to the injuries to their corners, and the defense could be in flux. No matter if MSU is banged up or not, the Iowa OL and offense can not perform like last week and hope to beat anyone on the road in the Big Ten.
While the Iowa Defense has taken tremendous steps forward this season in becoming a much better unit with their physical play, the offense is only moving the ball with finesse football. Even when Iowa does run the ball effectively, it tends to be longer developing plays that are off-tackle or further outside. Iowa has almost never run between the guard-center gaps, and a basic QB sneak has not been run yet. The coaches are more than capable of calling these plays, but not calling them speaks volumes about how they perceive the OL and their strengths and weaknesses.
The Hawks need to get back on track. If Ladell has to rotate with three other tailbacks until he is healthy to get the running game on track, then do it. If they have to give Brad Banks more time to bring an additional running threat to the Iowa Offense and to provide balance, then do it. Kyle McCann is playing very well and needs to play, but the running game must provide balance if Iowa is to win 6 or 7 games this season.
If MSU puts the replacement corners on an island in man-to-man coverage, Iowa needs to throw a lot. I don't think the Spartans will do that, so Iowa needs balance between running and throwing to win.
3. Sign Jason Baker away from the 49ers? – The punting situation is as bad as it has ever been in the last 25 years. Iowa has had some great punters like Reggie Roby, Nick Gallery, Jason Baker, and others, but some of Hayden's greatest teams had poor punting units. Maybe it is because Baker was so great last season, but this year's punt unit seems like the worst in a long time.
So whether it is inserting Nate Kaeding in at punter or just straightening out David Bradley, it needs to happen quickly. Poor field position and the momentum Purdue had from the play of the Iowa punt unit were very important in deciding the outcome of the game.
Normally, I would be writing how Iowa needs to take advantage of MSU's inconsistent special teams play, but Iowa has been just as inconsistent. Iowa has had a good kickoff team the last couple of years; both Tim Dodge and Kahlil Hill have recorded long kick returns against MSU. Hill has also had success against MSU in the punt return department.
MSU and WR/KR Charles Rodgers have made their kick return team a weapon as they have done well against Notre Dame and Northwestern. However, the Spartans had 4 punts blocked by the same player in the Central Michigan game. In addition, they missed three field goals and two extra points in the Northwestern game.
Special teams are going to go a long way in deciding the outcome of the game on Saturday. At this point, neither team seems very consistent in this phase of the game. If Iowa wants to think about winning at East Lansing, they are going to have to win this phase of the game.
4. Keep playing throwback Defense – Even though Iowa lost the game on Saturday, the Iowa Defense had to get Hawk fans excited. Although Purdue does not have as explosive of an offense as Florida or Purdue in recent years, the Boilermakers still have one of the better offenses in the Big Ten. The Boilers may have a new QB and a young OL, but for Iowa to hold them to only 100 yards at the beginning of the 4th quarter is very impressive.
My key to the defense last week was to take away the Boiler running game and make the offense one-dimensional. I was hoping that playing physical and only rushing the front four in passing situations could do this. By dropping 6-7 into coverage after forcing Purdue into 2nd and long and 3rd and long situations, as long as Iowa tackled well and played physical, everything would have been successful.
The Iowa Defense executed almost to perfection through the middle of the 4th quarter as they snuffed out the running game and tackled and hit receivers with authority. Bob Sanders and Bennie Sapp had opposing receivers hearing footsteps because they were hitting so hard. The secondary coverage was also solid. Purdue usually kills teams by converting short passes for 1st downs and getting yards after the catch, but Iowa took that away for much of the game.
Michigan State RB T.J. Duckett ran the ball very effectively last season in Iowa City, but the line blocking for him is not as good this season. Duckett has tremendous size and athletic ability, but the Iowa front seven is very physical as well. If the Hawks can blow up Spartan run blocks and get to Duckett before he builds up a head of steam, they should be able to contain him.
Highly touted WR Charles Rodgers has played very well so far this season, and he has a tremendous advantage over most cornerbacks because of his height and speed. However, Rodgers has not played against hitters in the secondary like Sapp and Sanders. Maybe they can cause some drops again this week. If they can't get on him and play physical, Rodgers has the ability to go the distance.
Although the team and scheme are different, if the Iowa Defense plays to the level of last week, they should be fine. If the Iowa Offense moves the ball and scores points while the special teams hold their own or better, the defense could be great. Either way, the defense must continue to be stifling if the Hawks are going to get a road win in East Lansing.
5. Bounce back like most of Hayden's teams – Adversity is part of sports. Every year there are teams that are talented enough to do great things, but talent and luck combined with how they react to adversity go a long way in determining which teams have good or great seasons.
During Hayden's glory years in Iowa City, he and his staff did a great job of keeping teams moving forward when things didn't always go right. Any team can play well and be focused if everything is going right, but the better programs are the ones that bounce back and compete to win games even when things haven't gone well. The 1987 and 1995 Hawks are the best examples of teams that continued to compete and win games even after their dreams of Pasadena went by the wayside. Some programs like Illinois have a tradition of not responding well when the chips are down and preseason goals are no longer attainable.
Iowa has not had a winning team since 1997, and has not had a winning team that responded well to adversity since 1996. Last year's team showed heart and character in finishing 3-9 after starting 0-5. They could have mailed it in, but they didn't. It says a lot about the 2000 seniors and Coach Ferentz and the coaching staff that they continued to get better.
Every team is different, and this team is 3-1 going into the MSU game. If they can find a way to win, they will be 4-1 with a road win under their belt and two upcoming home games. If they lose, they will be 3-2 and have little room for error if they want to win 6 or 7 games this year. Many of the teams in the Big Ten this season are so close in talent, ability, and performance that the team performance this week might say a lot about the team fortunes for the season. If they can play well enough to win, they then will have shown the ability to play with anyone on the schedule. If they lose, there will be more doubts and questions.