MSU looks to make it two in a row as Iowa comes to town for homecoming. Recent Hawkeye trips to East Lansing have come down to the final play, but they haven't been to Spartan Stadium since 2008. Nope. Definitely not in 2009, that's for sure. RossWB from the always-fun Black Heart Gold Pants was kind enough to answer some questions about Iowa's start, Mark Weisman and heartbreaking losses to Central Michigan. You can check out our preseason Q&A here. I answered some questions for the guys over there, which you can read here.
1. What has been surprising about the Hawkeyes this season since we last talked?
A few things. The defense has been better than the offense (would have bet a lot of money on the opposite being true). The running game has far better than the passing offense (surprising given the personnel involved). Entering the season, I thought this would be a year where Iowa's offense needed to carry more of the load and that we might find ourselves in several shootout-type games (Big Ten-style shootouts, so we're talking 30-27 here, not some 70-63 West Virginia-Baylor madness). I also thought the passing offense would carry the load for that offense, between a host of inexperienced options at RB, a returning senior starter at QB, and some reasonably experienced options in the passing game.
Instead, the passing game has been out of sync much of the year, the offensive line has developed into a pretty dominant group of run-blockers (and, after a ghastly outing in week one, a solid crew of pass-blockers), and out of nowhere Mark Weisman has emerged to pummel opposing defenses into submission at the RB position. The defense has also been very solid, holding all but one team (uh, Central Michigan) under 17 points. On the other hand, they haven't played the most dynamic set of offenses, either. On the other other hand, Michigan State doesn't appear to have a super-dynamic offense themselves.
(From the 2009 game that didn't happen. Literally couldn't find any MSU/Iowa highlights in an MSU win on YouTube. Also, OLDEST BAND IN BIG TEN. PLEASE MARKET THIS FACT)
2. You've only allowed more than 20 points once, but two surprising losses at home. What's been the reason? Are there major problems that need to be fixed?
There's not one magic bullet to explain Iowa's problems this year, unfortunately. Iowa lost to Iowa State because the offense was completely inept (see: six freaking points) and they lost to Central Michigan because the defense absolutely melted down in an inferno of incompetence and indiscipline in the last two minutes of the game (with a dash of special teams incompetence thrown in for good measure). On the whole, though, the defense has been an (unexpected) strong point for Iowa this year. They struggled for a drive here and there against NIU, Iowa State, and UNI, but for the most part they've been surprisingly good at keeping teams off the scoreboard.
The offense was a major issue early in the year (see: one touchdown through the first two games), but they've been steadily improving since then, partially with the emergence of Mark Weisman at RB and partially with the offense reverting to some of the more familiar concepts of the pre-Greg Davis offense. Still, if there's one side of the ball that worries me the most as Iowa heads to East Lansing, it's definitely the offense. They've really struggled a lot this year and James Vandenberg was awful away from Kinnick last year.
3. Weisman, is he the real deal?
That's kind of the $64,000 question for us -- both this week and the rest of the season. There's certainly an argument to be made that he's just feasting on sub-par defenses, just based on the fact that all of his stats have come against UNI (FCS team), CMU (bad MAC team), and Minnesota (mediocre B1G team). But there's also an argument to be made that he's actually pretty damn good and that he's a skilled player that just kind of came out of nowhere (or the Air Force Academy). The other thing to remember is that the Weisman success story hasn't been a solo performance: the Iowa offensive line has been immense the last three weeks in run-blocking, consistently opening up some enormous holes for Weisman. Brad Rogers, Iowa's FB, has also done a good job of taking out defenders when he's been in to lead block for Weisman. And the blocking fetish has even spread to the receivers, who've been laying some really good downfield blocks for Weisman.
They're going to play tougher defenses over the rest of the season and they probably won't be able to open up so many gaping holes... but it's hard to imagine them just flat-out sucking, you know? Likewise, Weisman will face tougher defenses, but when you watch him run, there are so many things he does well -- the way he reads his blocks, the way he accelerates when he hits the hole, the way he lets his blockers set things up for him, the way he crumples opposing defenders with his stiffarm -- that it's hard not to see those skills helping him be a solid running back for Iowa the rest of the season. I really don't think he's a flash in the pan (but he's also probably not quite as good as his stats have made him look the past two games).
4. What are three keys to victory for the Hawkeyes?
They need to start fast, they need to win the turnover battle, and they need to get Mark Weisman going. I don't expect Weisman to go for 170+ the way he has the last few weeks, but Iowa needs him to keep Sparty's defense honest and take some pressure off Vandenberg. The Iowa passing game just isn't strong enough to carry the load by itself, especially on the road. They also need to get some points early because this doesn't appear to be an offense that's good at coming from behind (they managed it against Central Michigan before the end-of-game collapse, but... I suspect the MSU defense is a little better than the CMU defense, right?).
They need to jump out to a lead and just try to hold on. The turnover point is cliche, but it's also true: Iowa just can't afford to give MSU short fields or waste potential scoring opportunities. Turnovers helped kill Iowa in last year's MSU game. If Iowa gets off to a slow start and turns the ball over, it's easy for me to picture the Spartan Stadium crowd getting fired up and the MSU defenders getting energized and things really careening out of control for Iowa and this turning into a total blowout.
5. Give me a score prediction and why.
My head says Michigan State by 10 or so. My heart says Iowa by 3-4 points. As usual with these features, I'm gonna listen to my heart. The last two Iowa-MSU games have been high-scoring, but I think this game hearkens back to the low-scoring, physical, punting-is-winning Iowa-MSU games of 2008 and 2009. Weisman manballs his way to around 80 yards and a touchdown and Vandenberg completes a touchdown pass to TE C.J. Fiedorowicz in the second half, while the defense slows down Le'Veon Bell enough and forces a key turnover from Andrew Maxwell. Iowa, 17-14.
Thanks to RossWB for taking the time to answer some questions. Make sure you check out Black Heart Gold Pants for all things Iowa.