Two weeks after suffering a 17-13 loss at the hands of Notre Dame, the Michigan State football team (3-1) will return to the gridiron, and make its way to Iowa City on Saturday to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten). Kickoff is scheduled for 12:00 PM and will be televised on ESPN2.
The game will serve as the first Big Ten game of the season for the Spartans and Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio acknowledges the fact that it’s important to get off to a good start in conference play.
“They all count one,” Dantonio said of the game on Saturday. “It’s very important because it’s the first (Big Ten) game, and it sort of sets the tone for you. Especially when you’re going away, you’re playing in a tough environment. Obviously, every football game is big for us, but there are certain ones that you sort of point to. But we’ve always tried to take that next game and make it a big game.”
Quite possibly the most intriguing part of this match up though appears to be just how much these two teams measure up to each other, specifically on the defensive side of the ball. With Iowa only giving up 15 points a game, and Michigan State, 13.3, both teams have defenses that rank among the top of all colleges across the nation.
“I think there are a lot of similarities in it,” Dantonio said of both program’s schemes. “(Iowa’s) a program that prides itself on toughness, which I think we do too. There are some similarities when I came into the Big Ten in 2007 (as a head coach) and I looked across and saw Iowa and said that’s who we can be. They can play with anybody, anytime, at anyplace, and that’s who we can be. I think that’s what we tried to emulate somewhat, and I think that’s the case.”
The biggest match up to watch in this game though will likely be that of the Iowa running game against the Michigan State defense. While the Spartans have only given up a measly 58.2 yards a game on the ground this year, they have yet to see a rushing attack this season at the caliber of the Hawkeyes.
And although Iowa hasn’t exactly gone up against a murderer’s row of a schedule in the early going this season, the team’s average rushing attack of 244.4 yards a game are nothing to sneeze at.
Led by junior tailback Mark Weisman’s 123 yards a game, much of Michigan State’s defensive efforts should be concentrated on stopping the him.
“Weisman is a big, firm back, they want to run him,” Dantonio said. “Coach Ferentz is a guy that wants to stay balanced, but he’s going to set the ball down and run it, and I think that’s been their MO.”
But along with Weisman, junior running back Damon Bullock, and even sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock all contribute to a steady rushing attack that ranks 19th in the country.
At the end of the day though, while the Michigan State defense has played spectacular this year, it can only take them so far. Eventually, the offense is going to have to step up and make some plays, something that Michigan State fans haven’t seen a whole lot of this season.
And just as important as the Michigan State defense stopping the Iowa ground game will be in this match up, so to will be whether or not the Spartan offense can get going a little bit.
Besides a 55-17 smashing of Youngstown State, the offense hasn’t done much of anything this year. They haven’t even had a play of over 40 yards yet, giving them the not-so-prestigious honor of being the only team in the nation to be able to claim that notion.
In short, much of Michigan State’s fate in this game, as well as the rest of the season, seemingly rests on the shoulders of quarterback Connor Cook and this Michigan State offense. If they can make some plays and compliment their defense, they’ll go a long way. But if they don’t, they will likely find themselves playing in another mediocre bowl game at the end of the year.
Follow Ryan Squanda on Twitter @squandaryan