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Game Preview: Michigan State Spartans vs. Iowa Hawkeyes

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Southern California vs Iowa Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off of a huge upset win over the Michigan Wolverines last week, the Michigan State Spartans have another tough task ahead as the team makes the roughly 430-mile trek to Iowa City to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes.

The Spartans enter the game with one win and one loss, while the Hawkeyes have fallen in both of their closely-contested games thus far. These are two physical programs and this game may very well be another tight, hard-fought contest.

We have a detailed look at the matchup below, and give our thoughts and analysis on what to expect in this Saturday’s game.

Tale of the Tape

Michigan State:
2020 Record — 1-1 (1-1 in Big Ten)

Offense (per game averages) — 409 total yards, 321 passing yards, 88 rushing yards

Defense (per game averages) — 364 total yards allowed, 235 passing yards allowed, 129 rushing yards allowed

Cumulative Points Scored: 54 (27 ppg)

Cumulative Points Allowed: 62 (31 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 52nd

2020 Record — 0-2 (0-2 in Big Ten)

Offense (per game averages) — 376.5 total yards, 240.5 passing yards, 136 rushing yards

Defense (per game averages) — 329.5 yards allowed, 206 passing yards allowed, 123.5 rushing yards allowed

Cumulative Points Scored (2019): 40 (20 ppg)

Cumulative Points Allowed (2019): 45 (22.5 ppg)

Current SP+ Ranking: 28th

Series History/All-Time Records

All-time head-to-head record: Iowa leads 23-22
Current streak: Michigan State has won each of the past three meetings
Last Michigan State Win: Sept. 30, 2017 (17-10)
Last Iowa Win: Oct. 13, 2012 (19-16)
Michigan State all-time record: 709-466-44 (.600)
Iowa all-time record: 661-563-39 (.539)

Previous Game Results

Michigan State 27, Michigan 24.

I’m still basking in the glory of this one. Let us not forget that Michigan State was more than a three-touchdown underdog. But the better team absolutely won that day. The Spartans came in with a great game plan — even if the offense did get a little conservative toward the end of the first half. Coming off an anomaly of a game in which Michigan State turned the ball seven times against Rutgers, the Spartans had zero turnovers against the Wolverines. MSU also didn’t give up a sack and committed far less penalties. The offensive line showed marked improvements, in both the running game and pass protection — although, there is still plenty of work to do in the ground game. Rocky Lombardi made good decisions and played a clean game, the wide receivers torched the Michigan defensive backs (especially a true freshman by the name of Ricky White), the defense was flying around and making plays. This was a total team win, and at the end of day, the Paul Bunyan Trophy returned home to East Lansing. For those counting at home, that is now nine victories in the last 13 games, and five wins in the last seven meetings in Ann Arbor. This was a huge win for Mel Tucker and his staff, the first in Tucker’s tenure in East Lansing.

More importantly, it’s on to Iowa. But one last look at Slick Rick’s performance for old times’ sake — they’ll probably be more highlights from him coming soon.

Northwestern 21, Iowa 20

A heartbreaker for the Hawkeyes, which sent them to an 0-2 mark. Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras has really struggled through two games. In last week’s game against Northwestern, he completed just 52 percent of his passes for 216 yards, with one touchdown and three interceptions. The Hawkeyes also struggled to get the running game going here, netting just 77 yards on 23 attempts (3.3 yards per carry — sound familiar, Spartans fans?). Defensively, Iowa was solid. The Hawkeyes held the Wildcats to just 273 total yards, including a mere 130 yards in the passing game. Iowa also forced three turnovers and sacked quarterback Peyton Ramsey three times. Similarly to Michigan State teams from the past couple of seasons (perhaps not as much this season), Iowa’s defense is forced to bail out its offense, and so far that has not been enough to get victories for the Hawkeyes.

Oh, and Iowa’s Daviyon Nixon could be a big problem on Saturday.

Key Matchups

Michigan State defensive backs versus Iowa wide receivers: Iowa will be without one of its top wide receivers in Ihmir Smith-Marsette who will miss the game due to suspension. That means Kalon Gervin, Chris Jackson, Shakur Brown and company will matchup with the likes of Tyrone Tracy Jr., Brandon Smith and Nico Ragaini. Tight end Sam LaPorta, who leads Iowa in receptions and receiving yards, will likely be heavily involved as well. Ragaini will likely operate as Iowa’s No. 1 receiver, while Tracy probably has the most to gain from Smith-Marsette’s absence. The Spartans have played a heavy 4-2-5 nickel look throughout the first two games, so depending on what the Hawkeyes lineup in, expect that to continue. As mentioned, Petras has struggled at the quarterback position for Iowa, so the MSU secondary shouldn’t allow him to get into a rhythm early and build up his confidence. The MSU defensive backs versus the Iowa wide receivers will be a matchup to watch on Saturday.

Battle of the Trenches: The team that controls the line of scrimmage is likely going to come out victorious. The trenches are going to be highly important on both sides of the ball. Both offenses have struggled in the run so far this season. Through two games, the Spartans are averaging just 88 rushing yards per game and just 2.3 yards per attempt. We saw improvement from Michigan State in this area last week, but the Spartans still averaged just 3.3 yards per carry. Iowa fares better on the ground, averaging 136 yards per game and a respectable 4.6 yards per carry, however, the Hawkeyes were unsuccessful in the rushing game against Northwestern and those stats are lifted by a solid Week One Performance against Purdue. Both defenses are stout against the run — Michigan State allows just 3.4 yards per attempt and Iowa just 2.8 yards per attempt — did we mentioned Daviyon Nixon is a really good player? Pass protection is huge, too — Iowa ranks third in the Big Ten with five sacks, while Michigan State has allowed three sacks through two games (which all came against Rutgers). Iowa has only allowed two sacks thus far.

Rocky Lombardi vs. Iowa Secondary: Much to the delight of Spartans fans, Lombardi is off to a solid start in 2019. There were some miscommunications and turnovers that plagued him in the Rutgers game, but that loss was not on him. Against Michigan, Lombardi made solid decisions, protected the football, hit on several deep throws and led the Spartans to a surprise win. He’s thrown for over 300 yards in both games so far, but I don’t expect the Hawkeyes to allow that many. Iowa has had some changes in the secondary this year, and Purdue was able to carve them up pretty nicely in Week One, as Aidan O’Connell threw for 282 yards and two touchdowns (Iowa did pick him off twice, though). Last week, the Iowa defensive backs stepped up and held Northwestern to just 130 yards passing, and also recorded another interception. Lombardi will need to continue to make good decisions and not give the ball away, and the offensive line needs to keep him upright.

Game Info

Time: Noon (Eastern)
TV Channel: ESPN
Location: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, Iowa
Weather expectations: Sunny, with a high around 70 degrees for kickoff and reaching up to 73 degrees throughout the game, winds blowing south/southwest at 12-13 miles per hour
Line: Iowa -6.5


According to the weather reports, it’s going to be “a beautiful day for football” in Iowa City. This game has the look and feel of a physical, knock-down-drag-out, classic Big Ten battle. When these two programs get together, it is usually low-scoring, defensive struggles as both schools pride themselves on toughness and grit. I expect much of the same in 2020.

Interestingly, despite being 0-2, Iowa opened as a nine-point favorite at home. That line has since fallen to just over a touchdown for the Hawkeyes, but I do think Iowa is a better team than its record currently shows. The two losses were to Purdue and Northwestern — I’m not quite sure what to make of those programs just yet, but both of them have (surprisingly) started the season with 2-0 records. As mentioned, though, Iowa also has a tough defense and Michigan State is in for a really physical game.

What’s also interesting is that Iowa ranks significantly higher than Michigan State in ESPN SP+ rankings — which is “a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency.” Iowa ranks 28th overall (MSU ranks 52nd), 69th in offense (MSU ranks 111th) and 12th in defense (MSU ranks 15th). So, if these advanced metrics are to be believed, perhaps Iowa is actually a much better team than it has shown so far. But I am still sticking with the eye test at this point, and I don’t see Iowa as that much of a better team than Michigan State. Also, despite losing to both schools, Iowa still ranks higher in these SP+ rankings than both Northwestern and Purdue, so perhaps we should take this information with a grain of salt.

This game is a total toss up to me, but I think the Spartans carry the momentum from last week into Iowa City and walk out of Kinnick Stadium with a hard-fought victory. With that said, I hope the team doesn’t feel the emotional “hangover” from the big win at Michigan and come out lethargically. Iowa is too good of a team to look past, and the Spartans have to be solely focused on the Hawkeyes and prepared for a physical football game for 60 minutes of gameplay. I predicted an upset win over Iowa in my preseason primer, and I am going to stick with that.

For additional insights into Iowa, check out our “Get to Know the Opponent” piece.