By Pat Harty
EAST LANSING, Mich. – One only has to look at the sudden decline of Michigan State to realize how fragile and vulnerable most college football programs are from a competitive standpoint.
The Spartans went from winning 13, 11 and 12 games in the three seasons from 2013 to 2015 to finishing 3-9 last season.
The current Michigan State team is 2-1 heading into Saturday’s Big Ten opener against Iowa at Spartan Stadium, and is coming off a 38-18 loss to Notre Dame in a game where the Spartans self-destructed throughout and provided little hope that the situation is getting better under veteran head coach Mark Dantonio.
Michigan State has gone from being a program that repeatedly found ways to win games to one that now often finds ways to lose.
If you do either for an extended period, it becomes part of your culture.
And that’s the concern with Michigan State as it tries to dig itself out of a deep and slippery hole that was dug by losing on the field and by players behaving poorly off it.
But even with all the negativity working against the Spartans, don’t think for a second that they aren’t dangerous, especially at home.
Iowa will be in serious trouble on Saturday if it isn’t ready to play or if it struggles with ball security, which is actually Michigan State’s biggest problem.
“The thing about playing Michigan State, it's been a while over the years here, but pretty much one thing that doesn't change anytime you lineup against them, you know you're going to play a well-coached team, and a team that's got good players,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “This one's no different. They're a physical football team. Very aggressive on defense, and the same thing offensively doing a good job there. They've got good players. They're physical players and it's going to be a big challenge from that standpoint.”
“Playing in the Big Ten on the road is always another challenge in itself. So we're going to have to have a great week of practice and be ready to compete at game time.”
There was a lot at stake the last time Iowa and Michigan State met on the football field. It came in the 2015 Big Ten championship game as Michigan State prevailed 16-13 by scoring a touchdown in the closing seconds to cap a 22-play drive.
The loss to Michigan State in 2015 was similar to Iowa's 21-19 loss to Penn State this past Saturday as the Nittany Lions scored the game-winning touchdowna s time expired.
“It was a tough loss,” Ferentz said of the 16-13 defeat to the Spartans. “There was a lot at stake there that day, needless to say, for both teams. We were both at the last stop in terms of conference play. So that was tough. You know, but the other night was tough too. When you lose on the last play and basically both games that wasn't exactly the last play in Indy.
Saturday’s game doesn’t have a conference title on the line, but there still is a lot at stake for both programs.
The Spartans need a win to show its fans that the program is moving back in the right direction, while Iowa wants to avoid an 0-2 start in conference play.
Many of the names of the players for both teams have changed since they last met, but their style of play hasn’t.
Sophomore Nate Stanley is in his first season as Iowa's starting quarterback, while sophomore Brian Lewerke is in the same position for Michigan State. Whoever wins their individual matchup could go a long way in determining Saturday's outcome.
Stanley has thrown 12 touchdown passes and just one interception this season, while Lewerke leads the Big Ten in total offense (319.0) and is coming off a 340-yard passing performance against Notre Dame.
Lewerke has an advantage over Stanley as a runner as he showed in the victory over Western Michigan by rushing for 81 yards. Lewerke actually leads the Spartans in rushing with 206 yards and is averaging 7.9 yards per attempt.
His ability to extend drives by scrambling for first downs after the play breaks down is something the Iowa defense will have to guard against.
“The core of what they want to do is pretty similar,” Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said of the Spartans.
Senior Akrum Wadley leads Iowa in rushing with 338 yards, but is only averaging 4.3 yards per carry after averaging 6.6 yards per carry last sason.
Iowa is ranked 10th in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 155.5 yards per game. That number has to improve for Iowa to reach its potential. And it has to improve in a hurry.
Michigan State’s decline on the field has been further tarnished by a string of player arrests.
The 2017 season now stands as a true test to see if last season was an aberration for the Spartans or a sign of things to come.
Saturday’s game against Iowa is one that neither team can afford to lose if it wants to be anything special.
Iowa already has lost one Big Ten game, and even though the underdog Hawkeyes fought valiantly and nearly pulled off the upset against Penn State, it still counts as one loss.
“You’ve got to have a short memory,” said Iowa offensive lineman Boone Myers. “Coach Ferentz always says after a game, win or lose, you have 24 hours. And once Sunday hits, you’ve got to move on.”
Michigan State is 5-10 since defeating Iowa in the 2015 Big Ten championship game, so confidence is waning.
Dantonio has earned some security by lifting Michigan State to elite status and by sustaining it by Michigan State’s standards.
But should the Spartans suffer through another losing season, Dantonio’s seat will start to get warm.
Three years is about what it takes to bring down a legend-in-the-making.
That’s why the Spartans have to start winning in a hurry because the more you lose, the easier it becomes.
Iowa was in a similar situation in 2013 after finishing 4-8 in the previous season.
Another losing season would’ve fueled the discontent and frustration to a level in which Ferentz would’ve started feeling some heat.
But the Hawkeyes responded by winning eight games in 2013.
The loss of all-Big Ten quarterback Connor Cook, who graduated in 2015, has presented problems for Michigan State, but the struggles go way beyond his position.
For some reason, Michigan State has lost its mojo and there is some doubt whether the current team can get it back.
A victory over Iowa would certainly be a step in the right direction and seems within reach if the Spartans protect the football and establish the run.
And the same goes for Iowa.
Prediction: Michigan State 22, Iowa 20