Be honest. You didn't think Michigan State would be here. It's ok, neither did I.
As the Spartans took the field in Columbus on November 21st, we the public found out what the coaches had known all week: Connor Cook would not be playing. At that point questions outnumbered answers.
How could two backup quarterbacks take down the defending National Champs in their own backyard? How could a defense that had been uncharacteristically gouged all season hope to contain Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Ezekiel Elliott or J.T. Barrett, the man who embarrassed them at home just a year ago? Could the offensive line possibly hope to move the ball against Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington? As the rain poured, it looked like the Spartans goals would be washed away.
But we all know what happened next. RIP ta da narratives.
Fast forward three weeks and that feeling of hopelessness has turned into unbridled optimism. All of a sudden this looks like the team Spartan fans expected to see coming all season. A team dominant in the both the offensive and defensive trenches. A team with a potent young running back rotation and linebackers that fly to the ball. Most importantly, a team with a healthy Cook at the helm.
As Mark Dantonio prepares for his third Big Ten Championship game in five seasons, it seems like things are falling into place just at the right time. Holes in the secondary have been patched, a once sluggish running game has found life behind a revitalized offensive line and strong running from Gerald Holmes (#TeamHolmes) and L.J. Scott and the injuries that once plagued the depth chart are largely healed.
After last weeks drubbing of Penn State, the team's confidence is as high as it has been all season. That is a good thing because the team they'll be facing tomorrow — the undefeated Hawkeyes of Iowa — is a darn good one and the stakes are as high as it gets.
The winner of this one will not only be Big Ten Champs but appear to be a lock for the College Football Playoff. For Iowa, it's about keeping the dream season alive. For Michigan State, it's about accomplishing another goal and getting to where they set out to be at the beginning of the year.
How do the two match up? Glad you asked. Let's take a look...
When Iowa Has The Ball
Iowa is led by junior quarterback CJ Beathard, who won the starting job over Jake Rudock —yep, that Jake Rudock — following last year's embarrassing 45-28 loss to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl (Get SLAYED). While his numbers won't jump off the page — only 14 TD's and less than 2,400 yards passing — Beathard has been exactly what the doctor ordered for a once beleaguered Hawkeye offense.
Beathard has done to a lesser degree what Russell Wilson did for the Wisconsin offense a few years ago. Before Wilson, the Badgers were run-heavy and predictable but became dynamic once defenses had to account for Wilson's running ability.
This opened up the playbook for designed rollouts and play action passes where Wilson could use his legs to extend plays or take off when things broke down. You'll never get the two mixed up, but now that his mid-season groin injury appears to be behind him, Beathard can provide defenses with similar conundrums. He did run for nearly 300 yards and score six touchdowns this year, after all. Again, Wilson he is not but his mobility can create issues for a defense.
Beathard also takes care of the ball, completing 60.7% of his passes and throwing only three interceptions this season. It may not seem like much but for an offense that is run-centric and takes limited shots down the field, a high completion percentage a low turnover ratio makes all the difference in the world.
Don't mistake the team not going down the field often for a lack of arm strength, because Beathard has plenty of that. He loves to throw his fastball, regardless of the distance, but knows when to take a bit off as well. You won't see the rainbow throws down the sideline like you will from Cook but his ball has plenty of bite.
His favorite receiver is junior Matt VandeBerg, who leads the team in catches (59 - 30 more than the next closest pass-catcher) and yardage (625 - nearly 200 yards more than second place). The South Dakota native is a true possession receiver, registering only two catches of 30 or more yards on the season. You'll see a lot of underneath passes come his way against man coverage so don't be surprised if he gets several quick looks attacking the fringes of MSU's pass defense.
In theory, Iowa's passing tendencies play into MSU's hands. The secondary isn't nearly the liability it once was, but it still has a ways to go before earning a spot alongside the "No Fly Zone" of old. Arjen Colquhoun and Darian Hicks just need to be solid. The Hawkeyes don't test teams deep often, so playing tight to the line and preventing yards after the catch will be crucial.
Unsurprisingly, Iowa also loves to use their tight ends, Henry Kreiger Coble and George Kittle. Kreiger Coble is second on the team in catches and is a favorite of Beathard's on third down. He is also split out semi-frequently because it would be borderline sacrilege for Iowa to run a true three-receiver set. HKC is athletic enough to pick up extra yardage and represents Iowa's toughest cover and biggest mismatch. Kittle is more or less their Josiah Price. He leads the team in touchdown receptions with six and does most of his damage in the red zone.
These two tight ends will be an interesting test for the MSU linebackers and safeties. Riley Bullough, Darien Harris and Jon Reschke will be called upon mainly to stop the running game but cannot fall asleep in pass coverage. Iowa loves to run play action and if the backers and secondary start to pinch up too close, they will hit a chunk play to one of them. Don't be surprised to see Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson in man coverage on the tight ends as well, especially in the red zone. Both are physical and athletic enough to stick with the big fellas and have been playing their best ball of late.
If you've watched Iowa any time in the past century you know running the ball is their calling card. This year is no different. Three different running backs have been "the guy" at some point this season but since his return to health Jordan Canzeri has been the workhorse. Canzeri leads the team in rushing yardage (964) and touchdowns (12) and also can catch the ball effectively out of the backfield; his 18 catches are tied for fourth most on the team.
At 225 lbs, LeShun Daniels provides the proverbial "muscle" for the running game and his eight touchdowns are good for second on the team. However, since his 195-yard three-touchdown performance against Minnesota, he has only carried the ball 13 times for 33 yards but, true to power back form, two of those carries ended in the end zone. The third back, Akrum Wadley, is all but out of the rotation after being a highly effective injury replacement while the other two missed time.
The backs run behind a very good offensive line, led by All-Big Ten performers center Austin Blythe and guard Jordan Walsh. They use a zone blocking scheme which will challenge the Spartan linebackers. It will be essential for the Bullough-led group to play assertive and downhill, otherwise Blythe and company will have their way. If the Hawkeyes can control the ground game they will be tough to stop.
This group is one of the best in the nation on third down, converting nearly half of their opportunities, mainly because they get themselves into makable third down situations so frequently. Stuffing the early downs will force Beathard to make plays with his arm which is not how Iowa wants to play. Making the Hawkeyes throw the ball 30 times would be a ideal for the Spartans but that is easier said than done.
When Michigan State Has The Ball
Spartan Nation breathed a huge sigh of relief last week when Cook not only played, but looked an awful lot like his old self against Penn State. His arm strength may not have been 110% but there was no lack of zip on his throws. It goes without saying, but having the Big Ten Quarterback of the Year healthy and confident is immeasurably huge for MSU's chances in both this game and their bowl game (...games?).
He will be challenged by the Iowa defensive backs who play tough man to man defense and are led by Defensive Back of the Year Desmond King. King generally plays only one side of the field, so unless Iowa majorly breaks tendency he will only be matched up with Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year Aaron Burbridge some of the time. The other starting corner, Greg Mabin, is a converted wide receiver whose size (6'3") could cause issues for smaller Spartan wideouts Macgarrett Kings Jr and R.J. Shelton (then again their speed can cause issues for Mabin as well, especially on quick throws). Expect Cook to test Mabin often, especially when Burbridge is lined up on his side of the field.
Cook is known to throw some 50/50 balls but will have to be careful around King who led the conference with eight picks, no matter who he is covering. Cook has incredible confidence in his wideouts and is never shy about testing great corners. Case in point: Jourdan Lewis. It's hard to imagine someone playing Burbridge as well as Lewis did, but if there is anyone who can do it, it's King.
While King presents a test for MSU, the Spartan passing game is unlike any the Hawkeyes have seen all season. To their credit, they did contain Nate Sudfeld and high-powered Indiana, but after that it's hard to find a competent passing team on their schedule. Nebraska? Purdue? Pittsburgh? None of these aerial attacks keep defenses up at night. Cook and company on the other hand may have already cost Ferentz some sleep. All of those wideouts have excelled against man coverage and Cook is as confident as it gets. As we've seen all season, that is a dangerous mix.
One reason for Cook's sky-high confidence is his offensive line. The group is finally healthy and looks to be gelling at the right time. Last week, Cook was untouched against a Penn State team that practically lived in opponents backfields all season. Iowa is solid, but they don't sport the same firepower as the Nittany Lions up front, especially after losing defensive lineman Drew Ott to a torn ACL midway through the year.
Defensive end Nate Meier leads the team with 6.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss, but after that the pass rushing gets thin. Ott is still second on the team with 5 sacks and 7.5 TFL's despite only playing six games this season. MSU's line should be able to give Cook time to throw, so it'll be up to receivers to get separation and make plays.
If things hold true to form, MSU should have an advantage through the air.
The running game renaissance continued last week, as Holmes and Scott both ran effectively and found the end zone against a tough Penn State defense. This duo has been dynamic in each of the last two games with #TeamHolmes controlling the first half and Scott getting most of his carries the second. As nice as it would be to see one of these backs get 20-plus carries in a game, rolling out fresh legs against a tired defense looks like a winning formula so far.
Holmes does look to be emerging as the lead back — he has had more carries than Scott in each of the last four games and a touchdown in each of the last five — but I would expect the rotation to remain fairly balanced with a little Delton Williams and Madre London sprinkled in for flavor.
The Hawkeye defense features a couple very good linebackers in Josey Jewell and Cole Fisher. Each of the two has over 100 tackles on the year and both are solid in run defense. They will need to make sure to wrap the MSU running backs up because neither usually goes down on first contact.
MSU has gotten pretty creative this year with the jet sweep and wildcat looks, most recently featuring Burbridge getting the snap. Dantonio loves installing packages late in the season and throwing things at the defense that aren't on tape. Keep an eye out for some potential wrinkles there.
MSU will try to control the clock as much as they can, especially if they are up in the second half. Hopefully, we'll get to see some of that old-school football.
Aside from kickoff specialist Kevin Cronin, the specialists didn't have to do much heavy lifting a week ago. Jake Hartbarger punted twice and pinned one inside the 20. Michael Geiger didn't attempt a field goal last week but did manage to miss an extra point after a bad snap from Taybor Pepper. The coverage units surrendered one 31 yard punt return but aside from that covered pretty well.
Along with his exploits as a lockdown corner, King also serves as Iowa's best return man on both punts and kicks. He hasn't taken one to the crib yet, but did take one of his interceptions back for a touchdown and is dangerous with the ball in his hands.
Their kicker, Marshall Koehn, is 13-17 on the year including a 57-yard game-winner against Pitt. He is only three for his last five and has not attempted a kick in three weeks. We'll see if any rust shows.
The best news for MSU is that Iowa has surrendered both a punt and kick return touchdown this season, so they are susceptible there. Shelton has come close a few times this year, maybe this is the week he finally breaks one.
Bottom Line and Prediction
Iowa deserves a lot of respect. They are 12-0 and in today's College Football landscape it takes a very good, very disciplined team to get to that mark. For that, I tip my hat.
However, I don't see many areas where Iowa has an advantage over Michigan State.
The Spartans are more talented everywhere on offense with the possible exception of tight end. Defensively, Iowa's secondary is superior and the linebackers are close to a wash but the Spartans defensive line is significantly better — MSU has 80 TFL's on the year to Iowa's 57 and 32 sacks to Iowa's 27.
I've read that Iowa has apparently played better lines this season but if they are out there I can't find them. Would anyone really take Northwestern or Nebraska's front four or Wisconsin's offensive line over MSU's when healthy (which they are now)? I suppose but that is a really tough sell. Same goes for the wideouts. Are we supposed to believe that...I don't know...Pitt, Indiana or Nebraska have better trios than Burbridge, Kings and Shelton? Again, that is an awfully bold claim.
The Hawkeyes two strongest units — the offensive line and secondary — are very good and capable of winning them games but they will have to play lights out to do so in this one.
On the flip side, MSU has faced far more top-flight talent than Iowa has — they avoided Ohio State, Michigan, MSU and Penn State in conference play and only really played Pitt in the non-con — so I doubt they'll be unprepared for the Hawkeyes physicality. The combination of more talent and exposure to great teams should give the Spartans an edge.
But all of that might not matter because Iowa is not a team that needs superior talent to win. They do so by controlling the pace of play and not making mistakes. Simply put: they do not beat themselves. Unfortunately for Hawkeye fans, not beating yourself is not always the same as winning.
This is not the same Michigan State team that had close calls against Purdue and Rutgers. These Spartans have a healthy offensive line, an experienced defense that plays aggressive downhill football and — for my money — the best quarterback in the nation.
These Spartans have played a grueling schedule that includes wins over Oregon, Michigan and Ohio State with the last two coming on the road while operating at well below 100%. Yes, they dropped a game against Nebraska but that seems to have only strengthened their resolve.
These Spartans have played in Big Ten Championships (and the Rose Bowl...and the Cotton Bowl...) and know what it takes to win on the big stage. They will not be spooked, they will not be intimidated and you better believe they will be prepared — their head coach will make sure of that.
The Hawkeyes are a very good team that deserves their undefeated record, but I think tomorrow is the night the carriage turns back into a pumpkin.
Cook goes for 300-plus and at least two touchdowns, while #TeamHolmes makes it six straight games with a score. The front seven slows the Iowa running game and overexposes Beathard, forcing him into some uncharacteristic misfires.
Michigan State ends Iowa's miracle season, wins the Big Ten Championship and secures a spot in the College Football Playoffs.