IOWA CITY, Ia. – Saturday’s big challenge excites Iowa’s big offensive left tackle.
“You’re always excited to go against the best in the country,” Brandon Scherff said.
Michigan State brings a defense that ranks first in the country in total and passing defense and second in rushing defense into the 11 a.m. game against the Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium. Solving that defense is mandatory if Iowa wants to extend its four-game winning streak.
“A tough defense to run against,” said Mark Weisman, Iowa’s leading rusher at 123 yards per game. “Tough, but sound, too. They tackle hard, but they also wrap up. It’s hard to break tackles against them.”
Iowa (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) has rushed for more than 200 yards in each of its five games. Making it six in a row would be an achievement, considering Michigan State (3-1, 0-0) is allowing just 58.2 rushing yards and has not yielded more than 89 in a game this season.
“When I think of a Michigan State defense,” said former Iowa and NFL standout Ed Podolak, now the radio analyst for Hawkeyes football, “I think of dominating tackles and a top-notch middle linebacker.”
The Spartans tackles are Tyler Hoover, a 6-foot-7, 290-pound senior, and Micajah Reynolds, a 6-5, 307-pound senior.
Linebacker Max Bullough, another senior, is one of the Big Ten’s premier defenders.
“They disrupt your running game with those big, strong tackles, and they work on penetration,” Podolak said. “And the way we run so much zone blocking, if they can get across the face of the off-side guard or tackle and get up field, they can disrupt a lot of plays the way they were designed.”
Six seniors, three juniors and two sophomores start on this Spartans defense, one coach Mark Dantonio is reluctant to call his best — yet.
“We’ve got to make those assessments at the end of the season,” Dantonio said. “The level of competitiveness is going to go up. But I think from an experience standpoint, we have as much as we’ve had.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said the Michigan State defense is not complex, which in a way makes it tougher to solve.
“You can’t get comfortable, and there is no tip there,” Ferentz said. “It’s easier if you can anticipate something, but you can’t.”
Trying to keep the offense moving falls in the hands of Iowa sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock, who will make his sixth career start.
“Take what they give you, and don’t think you have to make a play to win it yourself,” he said. “Be conservative with your throws, and manage the game in a way that you make as few mistakes as possible.”
Since Dantonio became Michigan State’s coach in 2007, two games against Iowa have been decided in double overtime, one by two points and another by three. Ferentz has won four of six matchups against Dantonio.
“What separates the two programs, game to game, has been inches,” Dantonio said. “The attention to detail, the little things that go your way or sometimes don’t. We’ve got to find those inches.”
Windy conditions are expected Saturday. Field position and turnovers affected by gusts could determine the winner.
“That’s where turnovers really hurt you, when you have two really good defenses like these two teams have,” Podolak said. “If both teams can make the other team march 80 yards every time they get the ball, then it’s going to be difficult to score.”
Iowa’s defense doesn’t have the billing Michigan State’s does, but the Hawkeyes are seventh nationally in rushing defense at 79.2 yards per game.
On offense, Iowa’s 52.5 percent third-down conversion rate ranks 13th nationally. Michigan State is No. 3 in third-down conversion defense at 21 percent.
Keeping drives alive and taking advantage of red-zone opportunities — Iowa has failed to score in seven of its 23 trips inside the opposition’s 20-yard line — is a must against the Spartans.
“Iowa’s offensive line is playing very well, and they’ve improved each week,” Podolak said. “I think it will be quite a battle along the line of scrimmage. It’s not going to be a game for the faint of heart.”
WHO: Michigan State (3-1, 0-0 Big Ten) at Iowa (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten)
TIME/TV: 11 a.m. Saturday, ESPN2
LINE: Iowa by 1
LAST MEETING: The Hawkeyes won 19-16 in double overtime on Oct. 13, 2012, their last Big Ten win to date.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football