The Michigan State Spartans (1-1) travel to Iowa City this Saturday to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes (0-2) in a Big Ten East versus West battle.
This is the first matchup between the two programs since 2017. The Spartans have won the previous three meetings (including the 2015 Big Ten Championship game), and four of the last five games.
To get a better idea of what Michigan State is up against this week, we spoke with Jonah Parker, managing editor of Black Heart Gold Pants — your one-stop shop for all Iowa Hawkeyes athletics news and analysis.
1. Iowa has started the season 0-2, with close losses to Purdue and Northwestern. I don’t think many people predicted both of those games as losses for the Hawkeyes. What has gone wrong so far, and do you believe the offseason turmoil related to allegations of racism within the program has anything to do with the on-field performance thus far?
Jonah: Anything and every that’s managed to go wrong for Iowa this far. I think coming into the season a number of Hawkeye fans would have expected Iowa to lose one of those games (I called for a loss to Purdue in our season long predictions, but expected that to be the low point and this team to actually compete for the West), but certainly not both.
Against Purdue, the Hawkeyes committed 10 penalties for 100 yards, the third most in the last 22 years under Kirk Ferentz. In addition, they fumbled twice inside the 10-yard-line. With a four-point road loss despite those anomalies, it was reasonable to expect the Hawkeyes to right the ship last week. They did not.
Instead, the Iowa offense was gifted 14 points off of turnovers and still only managed 20 total points and none in the second half. After rushing for nearly 200 yards in Week One, Iowa managed only 77 yards in Week Two and instead opted to pass the ball an astonishing 51 times with a young quarterback making just his second career start.
Most Hawkeye fans wouldn’t attribute any of those issues to the off field things we saw over the summer, but at 0-2 with so many uncharacteristic mistakes for a KF team you have to start to wonder.
2. What have you seen from redshirt sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras that you like, and what does he need to improve upon?
Jonah: Spencer Petras is the prototypical Iowa quarterback. He’s got a great frame and a big arm. I feel compelled to warn the Spartan faithful now of the graphic sure to be shown (even odds on whether it comes before or after the graphic on the racial issues) comparing Petras to his high school alum Jared Goff. It’s the type of stuff that had Iowa fans excited for this season given the offensive weapons surrounding him (which still feels weird to say of an Iowa team).
But to this point it just hasn’t been there. Petras has shown flashes and ultimately I think he’ll be a very good player in Iowa City, but he’s also missing wide open receivers, making poor reads and throwing rockets off his receivers instead of adjusting speeds based on depth of target. That’s largely a product of being only two games into his career without the benefit of spring or fall camp or any tune up games in the non-conference and starting with Big Ten opponents.
If the game slows down for him a bit and we see him just settle into his rhythm, he has the tools to make all the throws and a bigger arm than Nate Stanley.
3. The Hawkeyes will be without wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette on Saturday due to suspension after he was arrested for operating a vehicle while intoxicated. How big of a loss is this for Iowa, and which wide receivers/tight ends will need to step up?
Jonah: The loss of Smith-Marsette is a significant one for the Hawkeyes. ISM is Iowa’s fastest player and biggest deep threat. Not only that, he’s an All-American kick returner who showed the world how dynamic he can be in the blowout win over USC in last year’s Holiday Bowl.
That said, he went without a reception in Week One and has yet to find the end zone in 2020. Without Smith-Marsette, look for Iowa to turn to Tyrone Tracy, a hybrid wide receiver/running back who played significant minutes a season ago while Brandon Smith was out due to injury. Tracy isn’t as fast as Smith-Marsette, but he may be better at making defenders miss. Beyond Tracy, Iowa still has leading receiver Nico Ragaini, their best possession and red zone target Brandon Smith and tight end Sam LaPorta. Whether offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz can find a way to effectively utilize them is another question.
4. We’ve talked about some of the offensive players. Who should Spartans fans be watching out for on Iowa’s defense? On the other side of the coin, are there any particular players on Michigan State’s offense or defense who worry you?
Jonah: On the defensive side of the ball, defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon is the talk of the town. He’s a guy Iowa fans have been excited about for a while and he’s really shined in the first two weeks. He’s a big body at 6-foot-3 and 309 pounds, but he’s incredibly athletic. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has had him dropping into coverage on zone blitzes, spying quarterbacks in certain situations and he has proven Iowa’s best pass rusher with two sacks this season.
Outside of Nixon, the defensive line is a question mark. The Hawkeyes have struggled to generate pressure outside of bringing blitzes and that’s not likely to change this week. In the back end, there are several players in new positions and that’s led to some miscommunications early on. I would expect that to improve as the season progresses, but could present an opportunity for big plays Iowa fans aren’t accustomed to giving up under Parker.
Those two, combined with quarterback Rocky Lombardi notably circling this game for a while is a bit concerning from an Iowa fan’s perspective. Purdue and Northwestern didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard, but they were able to carve up the defense in situations where they needed a big play and the potential for deja vu with an Iowa native still the helm is stuff of Hawkeye fan nightmares.
5. What is the general Hawkeyes fan consensus about Kirk Ferentz and his staff? Is his tenure nearing its end, or is he still the guy to lead the program for the foreseeable future?
Jonah: Coming out of the summer, I think the consensus was that Ferentz was still the guy. The message out of the program was that the issues needed to be brought out and now that they were, the program could move forward without the weight of strength and conditioning coordinator Chris Doyle on their collective shoulders. There were reportedly very heated conversations that brought to light different perspectives and brought the team closer together with a better understanding of everyone’s backgrounds.
That was all before this team started the year 0-2. The mob has quickly turned and barring a big turnaround the rest of the way it feels like Hawkeye fans are going to be wanting a change. It’s a virtual lock that change doesn’t happen and you won’t find a Hawkeye fan around who actually expects Ferentz to ever be fired. But with the craziness that has been football in 2020, racial injustice allegations and the involvement of his son as offensive coordinator for an offense stuck in the mud, there’s at least some feeling Kirk could simply say he’s had enough.
6. Score prediction?
Jonah: The line on this one opened at Iowa -9 and every Hawkeye fan I know rushed out to bet every dime to their name on the Spartans. We’re just two weeks into the season, but we’re fully into the apathy stage in Iowa City and few Hawkeye fans expect Iowa to win this one. My brain tells me this is precisely when they defy us all and pull off a massive win, but my heart says this team is toast.
Michigan State 23, Iowa 17
A big thank you to Jonah for the in-depth thoughts and analysis on Iowa. You can catch him on Twitter, and for news regarding the Hawkeyes, follow Black Heart Gold Pants as well.
If you’re interested in my responses over on the Black Heart Gold Pants site, read here.