1. Iowa has already matched last season's win total, and could be 5-0 if not for late mistakes against Northern Illinois. From what you've seen, are the Hawkeyes for real? And what has been the key to the hot start?
Are they for real? I guess that depends. Are they a contender in the Big Ten Legends Division? I'm not sure about that. So far they've beaten a bad FCS team (Missouri State), a bad BCS team (Iowa State), a bad MAC team (Western Michigan), and an overrated B1G team (Minnesota). I'm happy that they have four wins, but the resume itself isn't that inspiring. Check back with me at the end of October; we'll know a lot more about Iowa's B1G credentials after the next three games, especially the games against MSU and Northwestern. But are they a bowl team? I think so. There's work to be done (they need two more wins, for one thing), but this team looks better than last year and seems like a good bet to improve on those results.
I think the key to Iowa's hot start has been their burgeoning sense of confidence. After losing six games in a row to end 2012 -- and then losing another game to start 2013 -- this looked like a team that just didn't know how to win games any more. Breaking the losing streak against Missouri State was a relief, but I think the win over Iowa State was a bigger turning point. That win wasn't always pretty (the offense put the "brutal" in "brutally effective" and the defense and special teams had some egregious breakdowns late in the game that made things way more interesting than they needed to be ), but it seemed to give Iowa's players a feeling that they really could win an important game. They've won their last two games by a combined score of 82-10 and, really, the margin of victory could be much, much greater. Admittedly, the competition hasn't been the fiercest, but Iowa has looked much more consistent and much more dominant than they have in a long time.
2. Offensively, we know Mark Weisman is there, but what else should the MSU defense be looking for? How has the quarterback performed?
Weisman is still a very key part of the offense, but you know what you're going to get with him: he's a battering ram and a workhorse and Iowa's probably going to try to get him at least 15-20 carries and let him pound away at MSU's defense. Iowa also mixes in other running backs: Damon Bullock has 61 carries on the year, while LeShun Daniels Jr. and Jordan Canzeri have combined for another 43 carries. None of those guys is quite as bruising as Weisman (although Daniels is a load himself), while Bullock and Canzeri bring a bit more speed and shiftiness to the table.
The passing game is still a work-in-progress, but Rudock is going to look for Kevonte Martin-Manley (his top target; KMM has 26 of Iowa's 80 receptions this year) and the tight ends (particularly C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ray Hamilton) quite a bit. No other receivers have emerged as consistent threats, although Damond Powell brings tremendous big play ability (4 catches, 206 yards, 2 TD) to the table.
Jake Rudock was named the starting quarterback during fall training camp and I'd say he's been a pleasant surprise so far this season. He's had a few costly mistakes (most notably a late interception against NIU that set up the game-winning score for the Huskies), but for the most part he's played very well for a first-year starter. He's completing 62% of his passes for 961 yards and six touchdowns and he's also shown more mobility than expected (28 carries, 146 yards, 5 TD). But his biggest strengths don't really show up on the stat sheet; he's shown really impressive poise, with arguably his two most composed and impressive performances coming on road games in front of hostile crowds, he makes good decisions with the ball (mostly), and he seems to have a great knack for shaking off bad plays. Iowa fans are pretty excited to watch his continued development, both this year and in the years to come.
3. Defensively, Iowa is much improved. What are the strengths and weaknesses?
The main strength is the trio of starters at linebacker: James Morris, Christian Kirksey, and Anthony Hitchens. They may not be quite as good as MSU's excellent trio of LBs, but they're no slouches, either. All three are seniors this year and they seem determined to end their Iowa careers on a high note. Hitchens is a tackling machine; his 47 tackles is tied for the best among B1G defenders and his 9.4 tackles/game average is third in the league. Kirksey and Morris don't rack up quite as many tackles (7.0 and 6.2, respectively), but they are playmakers: Morris has 4.0 TFL, a sack, and a pair of interceptions, while Kirksey has a fumble recovery for a touchdown and an interception. They're three very good linebackers who are in the midst of a very strong season.
But the entire front-seven has been a strength for Iowa; the defensive line has quietly emerged as a pretty solid unit, one that seems to be getting better week by week. They've helped key a strong rush defense (79.2 ypg, 3rd in the B1G), always the starting point of any good Iowa defense. They've also been getting more pressure on the QB of late; the sack total (six) isn't going to pop any eyes, but they have managed to force 14 QB hurries. The defensive line isn't an elite unit, but they're an increasingly disruptive force for the entire defense, which is a huge positive.
The main weakness of the Iowa defense is pretty obvious: the secondary. While top corner B.J. Lowery is good (3 INT, 5 pass break-ups), he's also prone to gambles, which can sometimes result in big plays for the other team. But the main problem with the secondary isn't Lowery, but the other three guys: true freshman Desmond King has started the last four games as the other corner and while he's played pretty well, he's also made his share of freshman mistakes (understandably) and has been picked on by a few teams, while the safeties (Tanner Miller and Johnny Lowdermilk) still struggle at times with positioning and recovery time. Iowa's pass defense has been better the past few weeks, but they gave up several big plays the first few weeks of the season and the threat of that happening again looms over this defense.
4. What are three keys to victory for Iowa?
One, win the field position game. Iowa needs to avoid turnovers on offense and they also need to avoid special teams breakdowns. They can't let MSU's defenders score (which they have proven alarmingly good at doing, particularly Shilique Calhoun) and they can't give MSU's offense short fields. I don't trust the Spartan offense to do too much if they have to travel the length of the field, but if Iowa gives them short fields? Even MSU's offense might be able to score points then. Special teams, particularly kickoff coverage, has been a bugaboo for Iowa this year. Minnesota's only TD last week came after a huge kick return and kick returns helped spark Iowa State's near-comeback a few weeks ago, too. Not to mention the fact that Iowa has already fallen prey to a fake punt and an onside kick this season...
Two, push the tempo. When coaches, players, and media-types talked about the no huddle during spring and fall practice, Iowa fans were skeptical; we'd seen Iowa experiment with the no huddle in both 2011 and 2012, before abandoning it to return to the comfort of familiar old offensive routines. But through five games, the no huddle seems very much to be a real thing for the Iowa offense; Iowa has run its offense almost exclusively out of the no huddle in 2013. Using the no huddle also makes it easier to go at a faster tempo, which is something that Iowa has also implemented at times this year. This might be a good game to really push the tempo, though, in order to try and tire out the MSU defense.
Three, get the tight ends involved and stretch the field with Powell. Iowa is going to run the ball (or at least they're sure as hell going to try), but they key to freeing up space for the running game and perhaps for getting any sort of functioning passing game working as well is likely to come from the tight ends and Powell. Iowa has a slew of capable pass-catching tight ends and with the receivers likely to be blanketed by MSU's defensive backs (especially top receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley), Rudock is probably going to need to go to the tight ends early and often to move the ball through the air. The other related point here is the use of Damond Powell, a JUCO transfer at WR who has the kind of speed that Iowa hasn't had at the position in several years. He's a dangerous weapon (see: the two touchdowns and almost 200 yards he's racked up in the last two games) and forcing MSU to account for him could (should?) open up holes for other parts of the offense.
5. Iowa fans seem to really hate at least half of the Big Ten. Where does MSU rank on that, and how much do the close games and Ferentz/Dantonio mini-feud play into that?
I'd say MSU is definitely in the top-half of most disliked B1G teams among Iowa fans, and possibly even in the top-third or top-quarter. There's a pretty healthy amount of animosity for the green and white guys. I think the close games, the Ferentz-Dantonio dislike, and some of the antics (or at least the perceived antics) that haven taken place in past Iowa-MSU games all fuel that fire. I think part of it is also the fact that Iowa and Michigan State are fighting for the same thing -- respect and success in the Big Ten -- and both occupy a spot on the same tier. They're not the blue blood programs in the Big Ten, like Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, or Nebraska (a blue blood in an overall sense, not necessarily their Big Ten tenure, which hasn't been too noteworthy yet), but Iowa and MSU both want the same sort of success as those other programs. Throw in some stylistic similarities between the programs (both built around an ideal of hard-nosed, hard-hitting defenses, both preferring pro-style offenses with an emphasis on running the ball) and, well, you know what they say about familiarity breeding contempt...
6. Score prediction and why?
Iowa 6, Michigan State 3. Cro-mag football FTW! But seriously... How about Iowa 13, Michigan State 10. I really do think this is going to be a low-scoring game, given how the teams match-up with one another, the recent history between the series (lots of close games, points often at a premium), and the possibility of inclement weather (sounds like it could be wet and coldon Saturday). And I'll take Iowa because they're at home, I trust Rudock a bit more than I do either one of MSU's quarterbacks, and because Iowa is riding a wave of good momentum right now.