Expect a Close Game - Some of the meetings between the teams have become part of Iowa Football lore. Spartan RB Lorenzo White ran all over the Iowa Defense during a nationally televised game in Iowa City in 1985, but QB Chuck Long had a huge day passing and scored on a bootleg in the closing seconds of the game to pull out a 35-31 win. Iowa would go on to win the Big Ten title.
The season before, Michigan State cost Iowa the Big Ten title as they supposedly tackled Long just short of the goal line to hand Iowa a 17-16 loss. Iowa had tied Wisconsin earlier in the season when star RB Ronnie Harmon broke his leg in a 10-10 game, so even though Iowa could have tied MSU with an extra point, Coach Fry went for two to ensure that the Hawks would go to Pasadena. Even though Long crossed the goal, the refs did not see it that way and Iowa had to settle for blowing Texas out in the Freedom Bowl.
Besides the games that had Rose Bowl implications, there are four other games that stand out in recent memory. In 1994 a 2-5 Iowa squad was down to their fifth string QB, Mike Duprey, and the Hawks still beat the Spartans, 19-14. RB Willie Guy led the team in passing after completing a long pass to WR Harold Jasper on a wide receiver pass, but the Hawks won the game on the ground as both RB Sedrick Shaw and FB Kent Kahl both went over the century mark in yardage. Kinnick Stadium was about as loud as it ever has been that day, and it did not hurt the crowd noise when a MSU defender gave an obscene gesture to the student section. Iowa used the momentum of the win to rebound and finish 5-5-1 that year.
Iowa was much better in 1995 and 1996, yet the Spartan games were still tough. Sedrick Shaw ran for 250 yards in the 1995 game with, perhaps, his best performance of his career, while Iowa rebounded from a 17-0 first quarter deficit in Iowa City to win 37-30 in 1996. The 1996 team struggles early in the MSU game might have been attributed in part to a hangover from a loss to Tulsa in the previous game, but they used the momentum of the Spartan win to propel them to a 9-3 record overall, 6-2 in conference. The 2002 Hawkeyes are off to the best start since that season.
The fourth memorable game in recent years was two years ago. The 2000 Hawkeyes were 0-5 going into the game against a rated MSU team, and were 1-10 in 1999. Kirk Ferentz had not won a conference game yet, and fans were questioning his abilities after early season losses to teams like Kansas State, Nebraska, and Iowa State. Thanks to a stellar performance by the Iowa Defense and Iowa Special Teams, the Hawks were able to get off the snide and into the victory column with a 21-16 triumph. WR Kahlil Hill ran a return back for touchdown, while P Jason Baker, WR Kevin Kasper, DE Aaron Kampman, OLB LeVar Woods, and SS Bob Sanders all made huge plays.
In the Trenches - Iowa is one of the top rushing teams in the country (242.2 YPG) while Michigan State has been average in stopping the run (148.8 YPG). The Hawks have had one average game running the ball, but have been superior in every other contest. Michigan State played good defense against Notre Dame (until the last play), but has struggled to stop the run in other games. It was easier for Iowa to run the ball on Michigan State than Purdue last season, and the same should hold true this year. MSU and Head Coach Bobby Williams want to put eight or nine defenders in the box to stop the run, but the Hawks have too much offensive balance to let them do that.
MSU is athletic up front, but they do not have the speed and intelligence of Purdue nor do they always play hard or tackle well. Iowa is talking about using three running backs, but if Fred Russell (722 rushing yards in five games) is healthy, he will get most of the carries. RT David Porter and the right side of the line need to rebound this week and perform at their usual dominant level. LT Robert Gallery graded out as well as usual last week.
Get Banks out of the Pocket - It has been great how QB Brad Banks (82-137 for 1,231 yards, 12 TDs, 2 INTs) has been used as both a throwing and running threat the last few weeks. His 44-yard run was the key play that gave new life to Iowa late in the game last week, but he also made some clutch throws. Brad is definitely a throwing QB, but looks more comfortable and is more consistent on rollout passes. The best pass plays for Iowa are QB boots, but those only work well after the running game has been established and pulled the safeties and linebackers near the trenches. The game plan of running the ball to open up certain passes is very sound and should continue as long as players stay healthy and do not make mistakes.
Dallas Clark has been a big weapon as of late (271 receiving yards in the last three games), but the wide receivers should have some chances this week since MSU will be trying to stop both Clark and the Iowa ground attack. Maurice Brown did not play as well last week as he has in every other game this year, but hopefully his number continues to get called. Ed Hinkel and Clint Solomon need to reassert themselves after Hinkel fumbled and Solomon dropped a key slant pass. The Purdue defender made a nice play on Hinkel, but that is two times already this year that Hinkel has been stripped. Ball protection is a must.
In the Trenches - Part II - Much like Iowa, Michigan State has an experienced offensive line. Much like Purdue, MSU loves to throw the ball, but the comparisons seem to end there. Unlike the Hawks, the Spartans have had a hard time protecting QB Jeff Smoker in several games (fourteen sacks allowed in five games). Part of the problem may be that the MSU passing game is a slower developing attack with longer patterns than the short underneath routes that Purdue loves to run. RB Dawan Moss ran 26 times for 191 yards against a bad, but improving, Northwestern Defense two weeks ago, but Moss and the Spartan running game have been either ineffective or not used enough in the other games.
The Iowa Defense has been very good at stopping the run all season (56.3 YPG), and this week should be no different. The key will be whether the Hawks can put pressure on Smoker the way that Rice, California, and Notre Dame did earlier in the year. Iowa put pressure on Penn State two weeks ago, but the quick-hitting offenses like Purdue and Miami of Ohio did not let Iowa get pressure on a regular basis. MSU does not get rid of the ball that quickly, and if the Hawks stuff the run and make the Spartans one-dimensional, they should be able to muster a pass rush. They need to, as no one in the nation, and especially in the Iowa Secondary, can cover Spartan WR Charles Rogers.
Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood - Everyone has been trying, but no one has been able to stop the best receiver in the country. Rogers is leading the Big Ten in receiving yards (687) and TD receptions (7), and has done it even though opposing teams are spending all of their time trying to stop him. He has a TD reception in a NCAA-record 13 games, and was awesome against Notre Dame even though the Spartan Defense eventually blew the game.
Iowa was able to stop him last season, but allowed WR Herb Haygood to have a great first half. Haygood is gone, but so are Iowa Cornerbacks Bennie Sapp and Matt Stockdale. Rogers has to be drooling as he watches game film this week since Iowa is giving up an abysmal 338.7 yards per contest. Iowa will play a lot of cover-two against Rogers this week, but he is still going to get his catches and yardage totals. If they can limit his big plays and shut down the MSU ground game, the Hawks have a chance. Making Michigan State one-dimensional, putting pressure on Smoker, and causing some turnovers are the keys for Iowa this week. Rogers is going to get his catches, but as long as the Iowa Defense doesn't let him take big plays all the way for six points, things will be all right. It would also help if Iowa dominates the clock on offense and keeps the MSU Offense on the sidelines. If the Iowa Offense dominates the clock and scores 38 points, the fans will be happy in Iowa City.
Practice and Prepare with a Purpose - Iowa did not practice last week for the Purdue game with the same crispness that they did leading up to Penn State and it showed in the game. The offense had scored on the opening drive in each game this season until Purdue, and the OL even had the Boilermakers back on their heels that first drive. However, there were too many penalties and mistakes for the offense to overcome. The first drive kind of reminded me of the Utah State opening drive, as the team did not have the energy or execution that they normally have.
It is fun to be rated again, but the team still needs to prepare and play with the same underdog chip on their respective shoulders. There are not many teams in this country outside of Miami of Florida that can consistently succeed even when they don't bring their "A" game, and Iowa definitely is not in that class. This game is huge for Iowa. Win and they will be 3-0 with a game against Indiana coming up. Win and they just need to be 3-2 down the stretch to be 6-2 and potentially co-champs of the league. Lose and all of this stuff will look much different with tough games ahead. This game is a potential turning point and Michigan State is talented. Hopefully the Hawks are preparing and working with the sense of urgency and passion needed to play a physical, turnover-free game against a tough opponent that traditionally plays tough against them.