By Sam Kienzle
Tomorrow at Kinnick Stadium, the Iowa Hawkeyes and Michigan State Spartans will duel for crucial positioning in the Legends division of the Big Ten–hoping to clear the air of a foggy and inconclusive race in their respective division. The Spartans sit in considerably the best position in the division, having lost their first conference game two weeks ago at Nebraska. With one divisional loss and no non-divisional losses, the Spartans (7-2 overall, 4-1 in conference) hold an armored upper hand on three teams behind them that boast a 3-2 conference record: Nebraska, Iowa, and Michigan.
After the 24-3 loss to the Cornhuskers on October 29th, it appeared that Big Red was in control. They had only one loss in conference, a wretched but non-divisional 48-7 defeat at Wisconsin. That all changed last Saturday when resurgent Northwestern won 28-25 at Memorial Stadium, stunning Husker fans and further muddying the Legends division race.
For Michigan State, the aim is simple: beat Iowa for some conference separation, go home to face the meek Indiana Hoosiers (the scare of Ohio State aside), and then finish the year at revived–albeit still defensively vulnerable–Northwestern.
For Iowa, the goal is to clench the figurative fist ’til knuckles turn white and hope to win every game. That’s really the only way the Hawkeyes can make it to Indianapolis for the inaugural Big Ten title game. That, and playing better than they have for most of the year.
After the agonizing and inexcusable loss to Minnesota, the Hawkeyes’ desperate, urgent quest to Indianapolis began with a showdown against Michigan last Saturday. Like Indiana Jones in the final scenes of “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade,” the Hawkeyes “got penitent,” dropping low in the trenches and dodging the beheading buzz saw of Michigan, winning 24-16. Tomorrow, the Hawks must walk with tender foot over the fragile stones of Michigan State’s trap, spelling “V-I-C-T-O-R-Y” along the way. Next, Iowa must take the “leap of faith,” winning their first road game of the season at flawed but dangerous Purdue, followed by their last test: winning at the unfamiliar house of Nebraska, Memorial Stadium. If everything goes as planned and Iowa wins out, an ancient knight will greet the Hawks in the locker room and tell them, “You played wisely.” You see, movies make us understand things better. Pressing on.
Solving the Michigan State riddle will be no easy exam for Kirk Ferentz and his players. The Michigan State defense, despite a few substandard games (that’s playing below their standards), still ranks among the elite within the landscape of all college teams. The team ranks second in the nation in total defense, and leads the conference in passing defense. Lead by giant tackle Jerel Worthy and end William Gholston, the Spartans are second in the conference in run defense. They are eighth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 16 points per game.
They will strive for victory despite a twofold challenge: winning at Kinnick and slowing some of the nation’s most elite offensive players. The Spartans haven’t won at Kinnick Stadium since 1989 (they won, 17-14, and Iowa finished that year 5-6). Last year at Kinnick, MSU crumpled 37-6 after entering the game 8-0. Blame it on the pink toilets. Iowa is 6-0 at home this year. The pink toilets still remain.
Marcus Coker is averaging 122.3 yards per game, which leads the Big Ten and ranks sixth nationally. He has the most rushing yards of all backs nationwide since October 15th (647 yards). James Vandenberg is second in the conference in passing yards (2,089) and touchdowns (18). Wide receiver Marvin McNutt is twelfth in the nation in receiving yards (959, second in conference to A.J. Jenkins), and has six 100-yard receiving games this year, including three straight entering Saturday. He is closing in on multiple career and single-season records at Iowa, including single-season receiving yards (1,037, Keith Chappelle), single-season touchdowns (has 9, needs 2 to tie record Maurice Brown set in ’02), and career receiving yards. He already has the record for career touchdown receptions (25).
Before last Saturday’s 24-16 win over Michigan, Iowa’s defense had been a sieve of yards and a liability. It shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath as Michigan State’s unit, but did hold Michigan well under its season averages in points, rushing yards, and total yards. The Hawk defense also forced multiple turnovers. Saturday, they will attempt to do the same to Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins (1989 yards, 13 touchdowns, 5 interceptions). Last year, Cousins threw 3 interceptions in the loss, with one being returned for a long touchdown. On the ground, the Spartans are lead by Le’Veon Bell (528 yards, 8 touchdowns) and Edwin Baker (492 yards, 2 touchdowns). B.J. Cunningham leads the team in receiving yards (51 receptions, 827 yards, 3 touchdowns).
If Iowa wants to win this game and move on to the next battle of what is essentially a playoff to the title game, the fans at Kinnick must be energized to the point of foaming-at-the-mouth delirium. This is a big game, and must be treated as such. Michigan State is 1-2 on the road this year. Their one win came at Ohio State–an elite, rare win in a tough environment. However, Ohio State was dealing with serious offensive ineptitude at the time, and MSU’s defensive prowess has diminished somewhat in the past few games. Iowa is a different team at home behind a pro-Hawk crowd, and the Spartans–for whatever reason–have come up short at Kinnick for more than twenty years. Expect a close game throughout (not a repeat of last year), with Cousins making a late-game mistake to give the Hawkeyes the win.
Iowa 27, MSU 23