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Preview: Michigan State vs. Iowa

In retrospect, the times I've proclaimed a particular Michigan State football game to be the "most important" have been hyperbole.  This is definitely the most important game in the past decade, and quite possibly as important since the 1988 Rose Bowl.  Although the Penn State game still looks a bit daunting, the Iowa Hawkeyes and Nile Kinnick Stadium present the most significant challenge to an undefeated regular season.   I've blocked out the memories of last season's game, but if you're a masochist, you can revisit the ending here.

The Hawkeyes haven't had the magical year they had in 2009, but Iowa has still had a very nice season.  Their two losses have been against Arizona on the road - it's always bad when Big Ten teams play nonconference games in the Pacific time zone - and a one-point loss to Wisconsin last week, where Kirk Ferentz got in touch with his inner Les Miles at game's end.  Iowa's identity this year has been flipped - the offense is now the stronger unit and the defense, while still strong, has weaknesses that can be exploited.  After the jump, a look at how State will attack the Hawkeyes.

When Michigan State is on offense...

The offensive line will be doing their darndest to ward off a statistically diminshed, but still fearsome Hawkeye defensive line.  I don't need to tell you Adrian Clayborn is dangerous, but his statistics have not backed up that statement as he only has six tackles for losses and two and a half sacks.  Regardless, I wouldn't back off the double teams just because his numbers are a bit lacking, as he is still very capable of making State's offensive tackles look like statues.  As a whole, the Hawkeye front four is not putting up the same numbers as they were last year.  As a whole, the Iowa defense ranks 84th in the FBS with 5.14 tackles for loss per game and 72nd in sacks with 1.71 sacks per game.

This lack in defensive disruption might be attributed to a lack of depth in the linebacker unit.  Our friends at Black Heart Gold Pants lamented the depth at linebacker in Iowa's loss to Wisconsin last week,  and although most of those injured in the Wisconsin game will be back this week, they probably won't be 100%.  If ever there was a time to take advantage of Charlie Gantt and five-yard slants and hitches it's now, because Tyler Jimmerjammin Sash still leads a Hawkeye back four that is 20th in the FBS with 10 passes intercepted this season.  Although Sash has only one of these picks he ranks second on the team in tackles with 45.  As a whole the Hawkeye defense is still a solid unit, but not the Galactus, Devourer of Offenses edition it was in 2009.

How do the Spartans attack this offense?  I'm guessing in the same way most Don Treadwell-run offenses have done at Michigan State - try to establish the run first.  This strategy might not be effective considering how iffy the offensive line performance has been in the past two weeks, but in the off-chance it works look for a 60-40 run-pass ratio throughout the game.  If the run game isn't established, expect the run-pass ratio to flip-flop over to 60% pass with Cousins attacking the middle of the Iowa defense much like Notre Dame attacked MSU's.  

When Michigan State is on defense...

They will have a heck of a time dealing with Ricky Stanzi, version 2.0.  While the 1.0 version was interception-prone and had accuracy issues, today's model has stomped out those bugs.  Stanzi ranks 2nd among starting BCS quarterbacks in passing efficiency, going 124-182 (68.13% completion rate) so far for 1,732 yards, 16 touchdowns and two interceptions.  Stanzi is as close a clone to Kirk Cousins as Michigan State will see this year - he's a quarterback who can throw a deep ball accurately, he rarely makes bad decisions, but not particularly mobile.  Truth be told, the biggest difference between the word associated  with each's personality; Cousins's is "Faith", while Stanzi's is "AMURICA!!!"  Stanzi's top two receivers are dangerous as well.  Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (DJK) has averaged 16.6 yards per catch on his team-leading 30 receptions for eight touchdowns.  Marvin McNutt is the other deep threat for the Hawkeyes, and I don't need to tell you how explosive McNutt can be.

In what's becoming scarily routine for the Hawkeye running game, Crazy Old Testament ACL-hating God made an appearance this season, smiting back-up Jewel Hampton in the Arizona loss.  This means that Iowa has only one running back that could be considered a threat as of now, but he's a solid one.  Adam Robinson has performed very well on the season and in the past two games as well; he ran for 143 yards on 31 carries against Michigan, and for 114 yards on 23 carries against Wisconsin.  While not a home run threat, he's the kind of consistent back that can continually pick up 4-5 yards on first down and make life miserable for the Spartan defense when third and very short eventually comes up.  As Robinson goes, so goes the Hawkeye rushing attack - besides Stanzi, he's the player Iowa can least afford to lose right now.

How does Michigan State find a way to stop the Hawkeyes? If the Spartans focus on stopping the run Stanzi could pick the back seven apart all day, and if they focus on stopping the pass Robinson could pull the Hawkeyes down the field five yards at a time.  Since the Hawkeyes are well-balanced, I'd expect Pat Narduzzi to go with the usual defensive game plan - hard against the run and the usual bend-but-not-break mentality against the pass.  It worked against Wisconsin, but this time could be worse, I don't think Stanzi will look as bad as Scott Tolzien looked that game.

As for Iowa's special teams...

They're decent enough in the Big Ten this year. Trent Mossbrucker was the kicker for the first three games, but was shelved in favor of true freshman Michael Meyer.  Meyer hass been 4-5 on field goals so far this season with a long of 40, and 17-of-18 on extra points. Ryan Donahue is one of the best punters in the nation; he ranks 12th in the FBS averaging 45.8 yards a kick.  He has had one blocked however, so if you're looking for a ray of hope, that's it.  DJK has had 12 of 14 kick returns for the Hawkeyes, and he's averaged 26.5 yards a return with a long of 40.  Nothing to see here.  Punt returner Colin Sandoval averages 9 yards a return, and deserves this sentence and this sentence only.

Final Thoughts and Prediction

I'm still not sold on Michigan State having an easy route to 12-0 if they win this game - the Spartans need to prevail in Happy Valley at least once in my lifetime before I feel confident with a State victory there - but a Spartan victory tomorrow would clear the biggest obstacle remaining.  I'm going to spare you the platitudes here of "the tougher team will win" and "this game is going to be a dogfight".  The Iowa-Michigan State tilt was the most brutal game in terms of physicality each team played last season; I see no reason why this game will be any different.  It'll be a close game throughout, but Stanzi has the best deep ball Michigan State's seen all season, and I think that sadly makes the difference.  Please let this be a reverse jinx.