IOWA CITY, Iowa – When Mark Dantonio took over at Michigan State before the 2007 season, he looked west for inspiration. He aimed to mold his program along the lines of what Kirk Ferentz had done at Iowa.
The schools meet in this Saturday’s Big Ten title game in Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium (7:17 p.m. CT, FOX). The Hawkeyes are making their first appearance in the five-year-old event while the Spartans return for a third time.
“Unfortunately some have done it better than we have,” Ferentz joked this week when asked about teams modeling their outfits after his program.
There’s little doubt that these squads mirror each other. They feature pro-style offenses and physical 4-3 defenses.
“The thing that I can say about Iowa is they come to play every game,” Dantonio said during a Sunday teleconference. “The reason we tried to pattern our program after them is, Iowa, they always had a workmanlike attitude. They always went to work. They always played people tough. They always seemed to win consistently. They were very well coached.
“Their players played very firm up front on both sides of the ball. And that’s who we wanted to be and we wanted to be able to play with anybody on our schedule. When I came here, Iowa was doing that and as you can see, they’re doing that again.”
Fourth-ranked Iowa (12-0) bounced back from a 7-5 season a year ago when it didn’t beat a team with a winning record. The No. 5 Spartans (11-1) reached 11 wins for the fourth time in five years.
“Really since Mark Dantonio got to Michigan State in 2007, they’ve had a first-class program,” said Ferentz, the Dean of Big Ten coaches who’s in his 17th season heading the Hawkeyes.
Iowa comes into Saturday’s game averaging 33.7 points per game, second in the conference. The Spartans sit third at 33.4. The Hawkeyes allow 18.7 PPG while MSU gives up 21.1.
Michigan State boasts the Big Ten’s Quarterback of the Year in Connor Cook, who also was first-team all-league. The Hawkeyes’ C.J. Beathard is the second-team signal caller.
Spartan Senior Aaron Burbridge won the conference’s receiver of the year award. Iowa Junior Cornerback Desmond King was tabbed as the defensive back of the year.
The teams appear comparable across the board.
“I just think it’s a…it’s a football game,” Dantonio said. “I think championship games or games on a big stage, you know, usually they’re pretty evenly matched, and the people that make the least amount of mistakes win, whether that’s missed tackles, whatever, big plays.”
Running the ball and stopping the opposition’s ground game stands out as the simplest explanation of what these teams want to do. The Hawkeyes allow just 110.0 yards rushing per contest and MSU gives up 118.2.
Those numbers indicate that setting up play-action passes by first establishing a run game could be a difficult path. Throwing the ball early might end up loosing up the opposing defense to then get the ground game going.
“They’re very, very good defensively, and it starts up front. They’ve got an outstanding group of defensive linemen, got a lot of good players, but that group is extremely impressive,” Ferentz said.
Big Ten Coaches and Media named MSU defensive end Shilique Calhoun a first-team all-conference selection for the third year in a row. He was the league’s defensive lineman of the year in ’13. He’s posted 8.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss this season and has been credited with 25 sacks and 40.5 tackles for loss in his career.
“They have a great defensive line. The best we’ve faced,” said Iowa Right Guard Jordan Walsh, a first-team all-Big Ten pick.
The teams have been susceptible through the air. Iowa ranks eighth among conference schools in pass defense (221.7 YPG) while the Spartans sit ninth (231.0).
Time, TV, Announcers: 7:17 p.m. CT Saturday on Fox with Gus Johnson, Joel Klatt and Molly McGrath.
The Series: Iowa holds a 23-20-2 advantage after the Spartans won the last meeting, 26-14, in Iowa City during the 2013 season.
Betting Line: MSU opened as a 3-point favorite Sunday at the Wynn in Las Vegas. The number crept up to 3.5 on Wednesday.
-Michigan State is 5-1 Against The Spread in its last six games overall.
-Iowa is 1-4 ATS in its last five games following an ATS win.
Match-up to Watch: In what appears to be a clash of two evenly-matched teams, the game could come down to a turnover or special teams play. Those are hard to predict.
For me, Iowa’s chances of victory increase appreciably if it can pressure Cook. If the MSU signal caller is afforded the time some recent opposing quarterbacks have received against the Hawkeyes, it will be a long night for the Black and Gold.
Iowa pressured Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong last week by mixing in blitzes from different angles. The tactic was highlighted by Safety Miles Taylor coming clean on the Husker QB forcing a quick throw that turned into a Pick-6 for defensive end Parker Hesse.
With senior D-End Nate Meier slowed by leg and shoulder injuries, the Hawkeyes might have to lean on Hesse and fellow redshirt freshman Matt Nelson on the edge. Against a sturdy Spartan offensive line, coordinator Phil Parker and his defensive coaches will need to follow up last week’s strong game-plan in Lincoln with some creativity versus Cook.
I expect the Hawkeyes to hold up well against the run as they have all season. That they’re showing vulnerability against the pass the last month can be concerning going up against the best quarterback in the conference.
Take Note: Iowa’s Desmond King, a Detroit native, ranks second in the Big Ten in kickoff returns (25.6 yards) and punt returns (13.3).
Take Note, Take Two: The Iowa and Michigan State offensive lines are finalists for the Joe Moore Award, which honor the top offensive line unit in the country.
Non-Sports Related: A League of American Bicyclists "Bike Friendly University," Michigan State University has over 12 miles of biking trails and 20,000 bicycle parking spaces on campus.
Did You Know: MSU was the first institution of higher learning in the United States dedicated to the teaching of scientific agriculture. Historic discoveries at MSU include the research that led to the development of hybrid corn and the process still used for the homogenization of milk.
Did You Also Know: MSU is the only university in the country with three on-campus medical schools, graduating allopathic (M.D.) and osteopathic (D.O.) physicians, and veterinarians.
MSU wins if…Connor Cook has time to throw.
Iowa wins if…it continues to run the ball effectively.
Overview: From where things stood a year ago, it’s incredible and unbelievable to think Iowa sits one game away from being in the College Football Playoff. The Hawkeyes are once again nationally relevant.
Standing in their way is a program built in their mold. Though Dantonio likes to gamble at key moments in games and Michigan State could hit Iowa with some surprise wrinkles, the Hawkeyes mostly know what they’re in for.
We can try to play the common-opponent game in attempting to determine this week’s winner. Both squads own wins against Purdue, Indiana and Maryland. The Spartans lone blemish is a controversial loss at Nebraska.
People expecting a Michigan State walk in Indianapolis point to its win at Ohio State two weeks ago. They ignore dogfights with lowly Rutgers and Purdue and a miracle victory on a blocked punt as time expired against Michigan.
Those folks also view Iowa’s schedule as far inferior to the Spartans’ slate. That’s not acknowledging a 40-10 road win at No. 14 Northwestern or a 10-6 triumph at 9-3 Wisconsin, two teams MSU has not faced this year.
The Hawkeyes have thrived playing the lack-of-respect card this season. Not a lot of pundits have picked them to win this week, either.
Iowa still is waiting for a game where it puts it all together for 60 minutes. It comes Saturday against the best opponent its faced on the biggest stage.
PREDICTION: Iowa 27, Michigan State 24.