Spartans could be "contenders" with win over Iowa

The Michigan State Spartans effort against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (100 yards rushing allowed on 37 attempts for 2.7 per carry average) made observers sit up and take notice. Still, they can expect an even stronger test from the Hawkeyes. The Spartans rank fourth in the nation in run defense

With the exception of the toe-stubbing loss to the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, MSU has shown a resiliency that ought to put them in good stead heading into this Saturday's match up with #14 Iowa.

The green and white have fared well offensively running John L. Smith's version of the spread offense, averaging [insert statistics here] per game and posting three wins in their first four starts.

Also, new stars have emerged weekly, including sophomore safety Eric Smith who was named Big Ten co-defensive player of the week after a 12 tackles, two sack performance in MSU upset win over then #23 Notre Dame.

Smith leads a defense that will ranks fourth in the nation (1.4 yards per carry) against the run. Those statistics might have appeared to be little more than fluff considering MSU's three opponents prior to Saturday were primarily passing teams.

But the Spartans effort against the Irish (100 yards rushing allowed on 37 attempts for 2.7 per carry average) made observers sit up and take notice. Still, they can expect an even stronger test from the Hawkeyes.

Defensing the Hawkeyes

Senior tailback Fred Russell, (494 yards rushing, rank 2nd in Big Ten) a native of Inkster, MI., leads the Hawkeyes rushing attack, (third in Big Ten, 212 yards avg.) averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Russell reminds some observers of a 'poor-man's Barry Sanders.'

Like Sanders, Russell is tough to find behind Iowa's massive offensive line led by 6' 7", 321-lb. Outland Trophy candidate Robert Gallery. Russell is also shifty and has the second gear that kick in once he's into an opponent secondary.

If the Spartans can contain the running game and stuff Russell, it'll put the game into the hands of junior quarterback Nathan Chandler (second in passer rating in Big Ten 157.78), a gifted passer, but not the most mobile of quarterbacks.

The Spartans would love nothing better than to throttle Iowa's run game and then send end Greg Taplin, tackle Matthias Askew (5 sacks) and bandit Monquiz Wedlow off the edge to get after Chandler.

Spartans Attack

Offensively, Michigan State will have their hands full trying to move the ball against a talented Iowa defense.

Quarterback Jeff Smoker (fourth in passer rating, 138.47) wants to loosen up Iowa by getting home run threat Agim Shabaj (fourth in receiving, 314 yards) back involved in the offense.

Shabaj caught just one ball last week after injuring his shoulder, but he is expected to play and to start. The sophomore is one of the top ranked receivers in the Big Ten and can make a difference with his sprinter's speed. MSU also expects to have tight end Eric Knott back after a two-week absence.

Linebacker Abdul Hodge (2 sacks) and safety Matt Roth (3.5 sacks) want to pressure Smoker and allow ball-hawking corner Jovon Johnson (three interceptions and five passes deflected) to try to add to his interception total. Johnson will likely be matched up with Shabaj. Sophomore Matt Trannon appears to be on the verge of a breakout game after sitting out last season as a non-qualifier.

With Tyrell Dortch still on the mend, MSU will go back to emerging star Jaren Hayes. The sophomore running back was not expected to be a factor in MSU's backfield this season, but after rushing for 113 yards on 19 carries against the Irish last week, Hayes will get a second shot at becoming the feature back MSU has been searching for.

On special teams, another emerging weapon, sophomore punter Brandon Fields was named Big Ten special teams player of the week. Fields, who was not expected to be the regular punter for MSU this season, stunned the Notre Dame crowd by booming punt after punt for an incredible 53.8 yards per kick average and an amazing 79-yarder that changed field position for the green and white.

Fields and kicker Dave Rayner have been rock solid for the Spartans and could figure in the outcome of this game that will likely be a close one.

PICK: MSU's opportunistic defense (20th in the nation in takeaways) needs to force some turnovers to keep the big Iowa offensive line from wearing them down late in the ball game. Offensively Jeff Smoker needs to make quick decisions to keep Iowa's pressuring defense off-balance.

This one is likely to be so close as to come down to the special teams, where MSU owns a decided edge over Iowa. Smith makes his mark and wins over the fans after this huge upset.

Michigan State 24 - Iowa 21

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